A recent criminal case from Worchester, MA shows the confusion that many people (including a lawyer at my office) have as to the profound difference between the crimes of theft and robbery:
The facts of the hot dog robber case
As was reported, a man was sitting in a Worchester, MA park when Antonio Judd approached him, displayed what appeared to be a pistol, and took the man’s hot dog. Judd is then said to have eaten the hot dog, spilling mustard on his shirt in the process, before fleeing. Police searched the park for the robbery suspect, and came upon Judd, who refused to stop after being ordered to do so via a cop car’s loudspeaker, police say. Judd reportedly tucked his hands into his pants, and officers approached with their guns drawn. After a brief struggle with the officers, Judd was subdued and arrested – with a mustard stain on his shirt and a pellet gun and pocket knife on his person, according to police. The robbery victim is said to have later positively identified Judd as the robber. Judd was charged with armed robbery, carrying a deadly weapon, and resisting arrest. In a deal with the prosecutor, Judd pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of larceny from a person, and the other charges were dropped. Judd, who had been been to prison at least 3 previous times for assault, battery, vandalism, and drug-related convictions, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for this most recent crime.
The failure to understand the robbery/theft distinction
I first heard about this case from an anti gun coworker last week. This attorney was dismayed that “stealing a hot dog” had landed Judd in jail for a year and a half. My coworker believed that it was a waste of money to jail Judd, given the fact that the hot dog which Judd stole was of little value. Briefly skimming the comments on news websites where this case was discussed turns up a variety of comments suggesting the same thing. Even some newspaper headlines incorrectly referred to the criminal as a “thief” rather than a “robber.” Allow me to explain why that coworker of mine, and the similar sentiments from commentators on the news websites, are incorrect:
As I previously discussed, robbery is primarily a crime against the victim’s person, rather than the victim’s property. Although the exact definition of robbery will vary by state, robbery can be summarized as the taking of another person’s property by force or threat of force. This distinguishes it from theft, which is a taking of property without force or threat of force. For example, a criminal who holds a victim at knife point while demanding the victim’s wallet is committing robbery. On the other hand, a criminal who swipes a purse from the back of a chair without the victim noticing is committing theft. The key difference is that robbery involves confronting and threatening the victim, while theft does not. Both are obviously crimes, but robbery is far worse due to the substantially higher likelihood that the victim will be injured or killed during the commission of the crime.
Here, the robber approached an innocent person and threatened that person’s life. The fact that the gun turned out to only be a pellet gun is immaterial for two reasons. Firstly, what matters is the fear the victim suffers while believing that they are being threatened with a real gun, which is why the law tends to treat robbery with a fake gun the same as robbery with a real gun. Secondly, even a pellet gun can kill the victim. Placing that victim in fear for his life was the real crime; whether the robber then stole a hot dog or the Hope Diamond is irrelevant. Next, the robber took the hot dog from the victim. While depriving the victim the victim of that hot dog constitutes a rather minor financial taking, having a armed criminal draw closer and snatch one’s property away can only intensify the fear that the victim feels for his life. It would also stand to reason that a person who commits armed robbery to take a hot dog is mentally unstable, and a victim who realizes this will likely be even more afraid that the robber will shoot him even if he fully complies with the robber’s demands. Next, the robber fled the crime scene but was approached by police. Ignoring the police officers’ instructions and getting into a struggle with them constitutes the crime of resisting arrest, which is by its very nature another violent crime. In sum, the robber’s action are properly characterized as violent acts, and the fact that he took a hot dog while committing those violent act is irrelevant. Based just upon the facts of this case, the robber is a danger to society. Taking into account his previous convictions for violent crimes, the need to jail him becomes even more apparent. If anything, I would say that 18 months in prison was too light of a sentence.