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Burglary is one of those crimes that we hear a lot about, but for which we may not have a good working understanding. In fact, burglary has a strict legal definition and only applies to certain actions, some of which you may not have guessed.

So, here's what you need to know about criminal burglary, it's definition and penalties, as well as legal defenses to burglary charges.

Burglary Defined

At common law (the body of case law that directed courts and judges as opposed to written statutes), criminal courts defined burglary as a "trespassory breaking and entering of the dwelling of another during the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony therein." If that sounds like a lot of legal mumbo jumbo, it may help to analyze each element separately:

Trespassory: This refers to consent, or lack thereof, of the property owner.

Breaking: Creating an opening for entry into a building; this can include everything from blowing a hole in a wall to pushing open an unlocked door; in some states it can also include gaining entry through fraud or misrepresentation.

Entering: Any intrusion, however brief, into another's building with any part of the body; if someone kicks in a window, that can constitute both breaking and entering.

The dwelling of another: At common law, burglary only applied to homes, houses, or where someone normally sleeps; modern statutes apply burglary to any enclosed structure.

At night: Again, while older interpretations strictly held that burglary could only occur when it was too dark to see someone, most jurisdictions have relaxed that requirement.

With an intent to commit a felony therein: While the felony usually contemplated in burglary charges is larceny (taking someone else's property without consent and with the intent to keep it), the underlying felony could be any felony, like assault, arson, or murder.

Proving the Elements of Burglary

In order to convict someone of burglary, prosecutors are required to prove every one of the elements. If someone picks the lock on another person's back door and enters at night, but doesn't intend to do anything but leave immediately, it is not burglary. Likewise, if someone accidentally falls through a skylight and knocks a candle over, causing a fire, it is still not burglary because they didn't intend to cause the arson.

A person who has permission to be in another's house for a dinner party, who then proceeds to steal jewelry, is also not guilty of burglary. And you can't burgle your own home.

But what if a door is open or ajar? While in the past courts theorized that people who did not take proper precautions securing their home did not deserve the protections of criminal law, nowadays if someone sneaks in through an open window can be guilty of burglary.

State Burglary Laws

As noted above, each state has its own burglary statutes, and each may define the offense slightly differently.

California's burglary statute doesn't only apply to "dwellings," but also any shop, warehouse, store, mill, barn, or stable, along with floating homes, railroad cars, cargo containers, and airplanes, and, yes, even outhouses.

New York also considers someone who remains on a property without permission, even if they had permission to be there previously, with the intent to commit a crime.

Washington distinguishes between burglary in the first degree, which can happen in any building if the perpetrator has a deadly weapon or assaults someone, and residential burglary which occurs in a dwelling other than a vehicle.

And Wisconsin includes "the intent to steal" along with the intent to commit any felony in its definition of burglary.

The specific elements of burglary charges will therefore vary depending on where the incident takes place.

Defenses to Burglary Charges

Because there are several elements to any burglary charge, defendants accused of burglary have a few options when arguing their defense:

Actual innocence: Convincing the court or jury that you didn't commit the acts in question

Mistake: Arguing that you had the consent of the owner to be on the property or in the building, or that you reasonably believed any items you took belonged to you

Lack of intent: Contending you had no intent to commit a crime or felony, for example if you were too intoxicated to realize what you were doing at the time

Entrapment or duress: It's hard to prove, but you can claim that you would not have committed the crime without someone else's enticement or threats

The choice of any defense will depend on the specifics of your case, and should be handled by an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Burglary Penalties and Sentencing

Along with different elements of burglary statutes, different jurisdictions may have varying degrees of the crime. And the penalties associated with a guilty plea or convictions will depend on which degree of burglary is involved.

The differences will often depend on the facts of the case, generally the amount or kind of property stolen, the crime committed in the building, and the relative danger to bystanders or inhabitants. For instance, someone who breaks into an office building in order to burn it down and collect the insurance money may be charged with a different burglary offense than someone who sneaks into a dorm room to steal a laptop.

The possible fines and prison sentences will also vary depending on the level of the offense. Some first-degree burglary convictions can carry prison sentences of 25 years, while someone convicted of third-degree burglary may only get probation. These variations will depend on the criminal statutes in your state.

Legal Help With Burglary Charges

Anyone suspected of a crime has certain rights, and some of those rights apply before criminal charges are ever filed. If police officers even want to talk to you about an alleged burglary, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer. A local attorney will be familiar with the criminal statutes, as well as the process and procedure regarding charging, plea bargaining, and trials, and can effectively advocate for your legal rights.