Legislative Vigilante Justice
In late January, California Assemblyman Curt Hagman retrieved his car from valet parking at a Sacramento restaurant only to find that his back window had been smashed and his briefcase stolen. Hagman, who owns a bail bond company, made news when he took matters into his own hands by tracking the suspects to a nearby gas station using a signal broadcast from his stolen iPad. The suspects took off but Hagman got the vehicle’s plate number. Police later found and charged the individuals responsible; however, Hagman never did get back his briefcase.
The fact that Hagman was almost run over by the suspects after confronting them at the service station highlights why you should never attempt to justice into your own hands. For our purposes however, his unfortunate experience also makes a great example of the crime of burglary. Under California law, a burglary is the entering of a premises with the intent to commit either a felony or a theft therein. While this definition may seem relatively straightforward, there are actually a number of nuances in the law; not the least of which is the fact that a burglary can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the circumstances.
To be convicted of a burglary, the prosecution must prove that a suspect 1) entered a 2) building (or other specified premises) with the 3) intent to steal something or commit a felony. If the premises in question is a residence (meaning a place where someone lives or sleeps, even if they are not home at the time) then the crime is a felony. If the premises is not a residence (such as a shop or warehouse) than the crime can be charged as a misdemeanor.
In general, courts have been fairly willing to broadly define what constitutes both a building and what it means to “enter” that building. The gist is that anytime you cross into someone else’s premises (either with a part of your body or an object you control) you have entered that premises. You don’t have to go all the way in. Simply reaching into a window or knocking something off a ledge might suffice.
The law gets a bit trickier with respect to intent. Generally, if you enter the premises in question with the idea of committing a crime planted in your mind, you probably meet the intent requirement. The crime you intend to commit does not have to take place while you are in the premises. In fact, you don’t even need to actually commit the crime at all; you just have to intend to do so at the time you cross into the premises.
Proving their case
Broad as intent might be under black-letter law, proving intent beyond a reasonable doubt can be very difficult. The prosecution will have to convince the judge or jury that you had a specific idea in your head at a specific time. Because only you know what’s going on between your ears, the prosecution must necessarily rely on what we call circumstantial evidence (unless you confess). For example, if you are caught breaking into a home with a lock-pick and a bag while dressed in dark clothing in the dead of night, there is good reason to believe you intended to steal something from that home. However, if you are charged with burglary for stealing something from a store, it may be harder to prove that you entered the store with the intent to steal; perhaps you really were there just to shop for groceries and made the decision to steal on an impulse.
The devil in the details
As with any crime, the devil is in the details. In our opening example involving Assemblyman Hagman’s stolen briefcase, a clear burglary took place. It’s almost certain that the suspects broke the back window with the purpose of stealing the case. However, even if they broke the window before they even knew the case was inside, they would have committed a burglary when they reached into the car to pick it up. This is because at the time the suspect stuck his hand past the invisible line where the window used to sit; he thereby crossed into a premises with the intent to steal and thus his actions seem to meet the requirements for a burglary conviction.
Because of the possible complexities involved in a burglary prosecution, its critical to contact an attorney if you or someone you know has been charged with this crime.