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What Is Robbery, Its Defenses and the Possible Punishment?

In movies and television, robbery is often portrayed as someone using a gun to take money from someone operating the cash register at a liquor store.  The legal definition of robbery, however, is much broader.  It is the taking of another’s property from his person or his immediate possession, against his will, by force or fear, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner.  Permanently can include taking the property for such a period of time that the owner is deprived of the major portion of its value. 

Sadly, we find that drug use or the need for money to buy drugs is often involved in this crime, although this is certainly not always a factor.
Why This Article Matters:  Robbery is a “strike” offense under California’s Three Strikes Law because it is considered a violent felony due to the force or fear involved.  It is punishable by two to nine years in state prison, before any enhancements apply that may increase the sentence due to use of a firearm, gang involvement or because of defendant’s prior record, for example.
Robbery is set forth in California Penal Code § 211.  It is known as a “violent felony,” which means it is a “strike” under California’s “Three Strikes” law (California Penal Code §§ 667.6(b) – (j) and 1170.1). 

Robbery is punishable by two to nine years in state prison per victim if there are no enhancements to the sentence.  Usually, however, there are enhancements, especially with robbery.  Enhancements add to the sentence based on one’s use of a gun (Penal Code § 12022.53 – ten years, twenty years and life, although this is subject to judicial discretion under Senate Bill 620), infliction of great bodily injury (Penal Code § 12022.7 – three to six years more), committing the offense for the benefit of a criminal street gang (Penal Code § 186.22 – ten years more), having served time in prison (one year added) , or having a prior “strike” or “strikes” under California’s “Three Strikes” law (this can double the sentence or impose a minimum 25 year sentence) (this enhancement under Penal Code § 667.5 was repealed as of January 1, 2020 under SB 136).

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A robbery conviction can also lead to deportation if one is not a U.S. citizen.  Deportation proceedings usually commence after one finishes serving time in prison here in the U.S.

A robbery conviction will also lead to a lifetime ban on owning firearms under Penal Code § 12021, as it is a felony.

The value of the item stolen is irrelevant towards the filing of charges, although it is certainly relevant towards how the plea bargain is structured.  Also, robbery can be charged for the theft of just one small item.  More than one count of robbery can be charged if there is more than one victim.

There are two types of robbery, first and second degree.  First degree, the worse of the two types, includes robbery taking place inside an inhabited home, of someone using or just having used an ATM machine and drivers or passengers of any type of commercial vehicle.  The minimum term for first degree robbery is three years and the maximum sentence is nine years, depending upon exacerbating and mitigating circumstances such as one’s prior record, age, and the facts of the crime, including the vulnerability of the victim.

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Second degree robbery is almost any other type of robbery.  The sentence varies from a minimum of two years to a maximum of five years, depending upon exacerbating and mitigating circumstances as described above.
The defenses to robbery most often involve three claims.  First, one claims that he or she owned the property taken, so the taking was not of someone else’s property at all.  The “robber” was merely reclaiming his own property improperly taken by the “victim.”  Second, the client may claim no force or fear was used (this could mean it was instead embezzlement, Penal Code § 503).  Lastly, the client may claim that he or she never intended to take the property, although this is often viewed skeptically by prosecutors.

With the new “Mental Disorder Diversion” that is now available for any crime (still subject to the judge’s approval) under Penal Code § 1001.36 as of July 2018, it is important that anyone accused of robbery discuss the case facts with an experienced criminal defense attorney, preferably one with familiarity with the courthouse involved and perhaps even the judge handling the case. 

For more information about theft offenses, click on the following articles:
  1. What Is Grand Theft Auto?
  2. Conspiracy Liability Very Broad for Robbery – Beware
  3. Murder and Robbery Conviction Overturned Where Defendant Confessed in Reliance on Detective’s False Promises of Leniency
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