Robbery Crimes & Robbery Laws in New York: Defining the Use & Threat of Force

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.

Moreover, if while fleeing the scene of the crime a person threatens the use of immediate physical force (see NY Penal Law Section 160.00, which defines Robbery in general) to escape, then a jury may conclude that a robbery has been committed. Thus, if a person steals property without any threat of force (larceny), but then uses a threat of immediate physical force to retain control of the property while escaping, he will still be guilty of Robbery. People v. Bynum, 2009 NY Slip Op 9318, is a great illustration of this standard. In Bynum the defendant was pocketing watches in a drug store- an offense that would likely amount only to a misdemeanor Petit Larceny (drug store watches were not in total more than $1000). Nonetheless, a security guard noticed the defendant and ordered him to stop and empty his pockets. The defendant refused and attempted/threatened to strike the security guard with a fist. Feeling threatened the guard let the defendant escape. The appellate court upheld the jury’s conclusion that by using the threat of force in order to retain control of the watches, the defendant had thus committed a Robbery in the Third Degree. Because the defendant was in possession of the stolen property, his threats toward the security guard legally equated to “forcible stealing.”

The difference between being convicted of Robbery in the Third Degree and Petit Larceny is significant. In fact, it could mean the difference between no jail at all and seven years in state prison. As this blog has established “forcible stealing,” the essential element of Robbery, does not simply mean that one commits violence while taking the property of another. The threat of immediate physical force constitutes Robbery under NY Penal Law 160.00, and can be established without any overt act, or statement. The threat of force to retain stolen property while fleeing the scene of the crime can also lead to a Robbery conviction.

For further information on violent offenses and New York Robbery laws, follow the highlighted links. In addition to this resource, review the NewYorkCriminalLawyerBlog.Com for analysis of other legal decisions, statutes and cases in the news. Starting sometime in October 2011, the NewYorkTheftAndLarcenyLawyers.Com website and associated blog at NewYorkTheftAndLarcenyLawyersBlog.Com will be “live” and become a tremendous resource for New York theft crimes.

Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense firm founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors. The New York criminal lawyers at Saland Law PC represent the accused throughout the New York City region.

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