In common parlance, if someone stole from you, you would likely say that you had been robbed. However, under New York law, “Robbery” is more than just taking property from another (generally defined as larceny); Robbery is forcible stealing. To be convicted of Robbery (New York Penal Law Sections 160.05, 160.10, and 160.15) throughout the New York City area, the prosecution must prove that the defendant used physical force, or threatened the use of immediate force. This is true whether you are arrested for Robbery on the glitzy streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side or the gritty streets of Brooklyn. In other words, if someone leaves their pocketbook on a coat hanger at a bar and you snatch it up, you have not committed robbery. On the contrary, if you punch that same person in the face at a bar and grab the pocketbook, then you have committed Robbery. Unlike larceny, all Robbery charges (Robbery in the First, Second, or Third Degree) are felony charges (classes “B”, “C”, and “D” respectively) with terms of prison ranging up to 25 years.
Of course, in the examples above determining whether force was used is as simple as determining whether the defendant’s fist struck the victim’s face. But what kind of evidence is sufficient to establish the element of “immediate threat of force” in a New York criminal court. This is an important distinction because an experienced New York criminal lawyer may be able to reduce a robbery charge to a lesser petit larceny charge, if they can show that, in fact, no threat of harm was used. This is precisely what the criminal attorney in People v. Spencer, 255 A.D.2d 167 tried to do. Spencer was charged with Robbery in the Second Degree (NY Penal Law section 160.10), but his attorney claimed that no threat of force was used and therefore Petit Larceny (NY Penal Law Section 155.25) was the only legally viable charge. The court found that the evidence showed that the defendant intimidated the victim standing “chest to chest” with the victim, and backing him up against a subway pole. The court found that the defendant’s actions amounted to an “immediate threat of physical force.” The Spencer case demonstrates that an immediate threat of force will be inferred from threatening behavior. A defendant does not necessarily have to make an actual verbal threat or perform an overt threatening action (like a threatening fist pump). Instead, the court will analyze the circumstances as a whole and determine, as it did in Spencer, whether a normal person would fear for immediate physical danger from the actions taken by the defendant.