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What is Larceny?

Updated on December 4, 2016

Larceny is the crime of unlawfully and fraudulently depriving a person of his property. It is generally used synonymously with "theft," though the latter term is not as carefully defined and may be more inclusive. The basic simplicity of larceny makes it very common. Seemingly innocent actions may on occasion fall within its scope, for it is not a defense that the property was lawfully obtained if it was later wrongfully withheld. Regardless of the original intent, unless the property was actually returned before the complaint was made, the act is considered an ab initio offense, or unlawful from the beginning. Nor is it a defense that consent was obtained, if such consent was secured through fraudulent pretense. Neither is it a defense that the person may have intended to part with the property, nor that the purpose to which the person might have consented was an immoral or illegal one.

The common law distinctions between grand and petit (petty) larceny are widely continued by statute. New York State, for example, provides that grand larceny in the first degree is (1) the taking of any property from a person at night; (2) the taking of property valued at more than $25, at night, from a dwelling, boat, or railroad car; or (3) the taking of property of over $500 in any manner. Grand larceny in the second degree consists of (1) taking property valued at from $100 to $500 in any manner; (2) taking property of any value from a person; or (3) taking a court record. Every other larceny is deemed a petit larceny. In addition there are separate statutes defining particular acts as larcenies. A few such acts are: the passing of rubber checks, that is, checks drawn against insufficient funds, nonexistent accounts, nonexistent banks, or the like; the unauthorized use of airplanes or automobiles (joy rides); using or selling "slugs" for public phones, vending machines, or coin-operated devices of any other sort; and receiving stolen goods.

An example of a larceny which could be innocently committed is the finding of lost property and its retention or the giving of it to another without making every reasonable effort to locate the true owner. Such situations easily distinguish larceny from more professional and deliberate crimes, such as robbery, which involves the forcible taking of property, and burglary, which involves breaking and entering (into a dwelling). Larceny is, of course, a part of fraud and is similar to those frauds which are often punishable by statute but do not quite attain the status of a larceny because no property is taken, as, for instance, in the entering of a fair grounds without paying the fee, or the fabrication of archaeological frauds and fake antiques.

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