More legal language: theft and variations

Carlos Serrano, asker of good questions, was reporting his first New York crime story in SoHo last week. His lede:

On Wednesday at 1 p.m. police captured a man who allegedly stole in a shop in SoHo. The man was running on Prince Street near the subway stop when policemen started to run after him until he finally chased at corner of Prince Street and Mercer Street.

The use of stole was just one of many elements of the story I questioned or found imprecise. In follow-up e-mail, Carlos agreed. “Talking about legal jargon, it was very difficult to me to find an explanation from a reliable source about the legal difference between robbery, theft, burglary and larceny,” he wrote.

Even if you’re not assigned to the police blotter — the public record of arrests and complaints, often a beginner beat — you should understand the distinctions among these terms. They’re all about stealing; the differences have to do with how it is done, and in some cases how much is stolen.

Steal/stole/stolen means to take something that doesn’t belong to you, with no intention of returning it. It is a verb, not a legal charge.

Theft, as a generic noun, is the act of stealing.  (The perpetrator is a thief.) In some places it is a legal charge, but theft is often broken down into more precise categories like robbery, larceny and burglary.

Robbery means stealing from a person or a place — a subway passenger, a homeowner, a bank, a store, whatever. Under New York City law, a robber uses force or violence, or threatens to do so. Armed robbery involves a weapon.

Burglary means entering a building illegally or without permission to commit a crime, including (but not limited to ) theft. It is also a legal charge.

Larceny, as a generic noun, is theft of personal property. See below for more on the legal charge.

I reworked Carlos’s lede as follows:

A man suspected of robbing a shop in SoHo was arrested early Wednesday afternoon after police officers chased him along Prince Street. 

Or, in active voice:

Police arrested a man suspected of robbing a shop in SoHo early Wednesday afternoon after chasing him along Prince Street.

These are fairly standard police-beat ledes, a formula that, with practice, can become second nature. Later in the story, Carlos might have told what the thief was trying to steal, if he had that information. Farther down, he mentioned the spike in retail crimes, including one of the most infamous, which occurred last July, when a man stole 19 iPhones from the Apple Store at 103 Prince St. He might also have said the man robbed the Apple Store of 19 iPhones.

If the SoHo loot was money, robbery was probably the best word for the crime. If it was goods, another accurate word might be shoplifting — taking items from a store without intending to pay for them. In New York City, the legal charge for shoplifting is petit (pronounced petty) larceny if the goods are worth $1,000 or less, grand larceny if more. (Petit and grand are the French words for small and large.)

Carlos also wrote:

One of the police officers said they didn’t know exactly where he was trying to rob. Here again, rob is correct, though I d say exactly which shop he was trying to rob. 


Two other elements of Carlos’s story raised red flags in the head of someone who has edited her share of police-beat stories.

One was the apparent shortage of attribution. The story included a number of passages like this one:

When one of the officers captured him, he was still trying to escape, but three policemen that were just meters away on Mercer St. came and helped to immobilize the man. The suspect was very altered, with a disoriented look, groaning and struggling to breathe.

“I did not include attributions and did include all the details because I witnessed the whole scene,” Carlos explained. In that case, fine. But most cops reporters will be writing about events they did not personally witness, so they should liberally use phrases like “the police said” or “the police gave this account.” Carlos said he had requested the police report and would supplement his reporting with it.

Reporters should also avoid falling back on essentially meaningless words like alleged (claimed without offering proof — for example, those alleged millions of cases of voter fraud) to soften or shift an accusation. Making accusations is the job of the police — not journalists, who merely report them.  That’s why I edited a man who allegedly stole in a shop in SoHo . . .  to a man suspected of stealing from a shop in SoHo. (It’s clearly the police doing the suspecting.) For a refresher, click here.

Once again, Carlos, thanks for asking.





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