Theft crimes are some of the cases we deal with at The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm. California laws cover a wide range of theft crimes, one of which is burglary. It is an offense whose commission is when a person enters a variety of properties with the sole intention of committing a felony offense. While this may seem like a straightforward case, there are many times when people accuse others of illegal entry into their property out of revenge, to get back at them or out of jealousy.

For that reason, we are here to help residents of Los Angeles, CA, to defend themselves against burglary charges. If, therefore, you are facing such charges and you believe that you are not fairly charged, get in touch with us.

Legal Meaning of California Burglary

The law against burglary in California is under Section 459 of the state's Legal Code. Under this law, burglary is the entry into either a commercial or residential room or building to commit theft or a felony offense once inside. Note that burglary occurs by merely entering the structure with the criminal intent to commit a crime. It means that you will still be guilty of the crime, even if you did not commit the theft or felony offense.

This law is used to charge any person who enters a room, house, apartment, shop, tenement, store, warehouse, mill, stable, barn, outhouse, and any other building. The list also includes a vessel or tent with a plan to commit petit or grand theft or any separate felony offense.

To understand this law better, let us look closely into the facts of the crime. These are the elements of the crime that the prosecutor will be required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court for the suspect to be found guilty. They are:

  • That the offender entered a room inside a building, a building or a locked structure or vehicle
  • When he/she entered the structure, the defendant had planned to commit a California theft or felony offense
  • That one or all of these statements are true:
    • That the structure where the defendant is said to have entered is not a commercial building
    • That the worth of what the offender stole or had intended to take was at $950 or more
    • That the structure where the offender got in was a business building, but he/she had got into it outside the business hours

Remember that a person becomes guilty of a burglary offense the moment they enter the said structure expecting to commit theft or a felony offense, even if the crime will not happen in the end.

Example: An office employee, while working early, enters her boss' office, intending to steal a valuable item her boss keeps in his office. While inside, a cleaner surprises her, and so she is unable to get the medal. She excuses herself and leaves the office in a hurry. In such a case, the office worker could be guilty of burglary even if she did not steal the property. The facts of the case are that she entered an office that was out of bounds at that time, and with the criminal intent to steal something valuable.

If, on the other hand, the defendant did not have the intent to commit theft or any separate felony offense when they entered the said structure, they will not be found guilty of California burglary.

Example: Jim and Tabitha got legally separated, and Jim moved in with a friend. One evening after work, Tabitha finds Jim in her house and immediately calls police officers. Jim says that the only reason he came back was to collect some of the things he left in the house when he was moving out. Tabitha accuses Jim of returning to hurt her. Even though Jim had a previous conviction for domestic violence before their separation, the court has no way of proving that Jim intended to hurt Tabitha. In this case, Jim cannot be charged with California Burglary.

Types of California Burglary

There are two types of California burglary offenses:

  • First-degree burglary- This offense occurs when the said structure is a place of residence
  • Second-degree burglary- This offense occurs when the said structure is any other building other than a residential place

First-degree burglary is usually called residential burglary while second-degree burglary is called the commercial burglary. To help you understand the definitions better, let us look at what amounts to a residential place in California. A residential area could be one of these:

  • A house that is inhabited
  • A room that is within an occupied house
  • An occupied boat
  • An occupied trailer coach
  • An occupied floating home
  • An occupied part of any type of building
  • An occupied motel or hotel room

Inhabited or occupied in this case means that another person is using that room or structure as their dwelling place. Note that this does not mean that people who live in that place have to be at home at the time the offense is committed for the offender to be found guilty of burglary.

The structure or room is considered uninhabited or unoccupied if the person that was living there left and did not intend to come back. If, however, the residents moved out as a result of a natural disaster or something similar, the law will still consider the structure inhabited.

Example: In the case where some people were evacuated from their homes because of leaking roofs. Those homes will stay unoccupied for some time before the problem is fixed. If a person enters any of those homes and steals several items while their owners are away, that person is guilty of California's first-degree burglary. Even if the homes remain uninhabited, the owners only left for a fundamental reason and will soon return once the problem has been fixed.

Note that any construction that is connected to a house, with all the house functionality attached to it, is considered a house under California burglary laws. It means that if grand theft was committed in a person's garage, that person can file charges for California 1st-degree burglary if the garage is attached to their house. However, if the garage is not connected to the house, any theft or felony offense committed in the detached garage will be convicted as a California 2nd-degree burglary.

Burglary Vs. Shoplifting

California burglary and California shoplifting are two offenses that are frequently used together though their elements are quite different. The crime against shoplifting in the state is covered under Section 459.5 of the California statutes. It is explained as getting into a commercial building during business hours to steal something valuable. For a person to be found guilty of shoplifting in California, the prosecutor must be able to prove the following without a reasonable doubt:

  • That the person entered a commercial building
  • That the person did so when the commercial building was open and during its operating hours
  • That while entering the commercial building, the person had the intention of stealing property worth $950 or less

What this means is that shoplifting is in the general category of California burglary, only that the defendant, in this case, enters a commercial building that is open and in full operation. The other difference is the value of the property that the defendant steals or intends to steal. While burglary considers property worth more than $950, shoplifting goes for anything less than $950. Shoplifting can, therefore, be taken to mean any illegal entry into an open commercial building with the intent to commit a petty theft offense as opposed to grand theft.

The creation of California shoplifting was under Proposition 47 as a way to reduce penalties for some minor offenses in the state. Before the creation of Proposition 47, shoplifters could easily face charges for 2nd-degree burglary as under Section 459 of the state laws, which is a more serious offense that carries felony punishments. With Proposition 47 in place, shoplifting can be considered as a more lenient offense, carrying misdemeanor penalties. However, things can still get worse for a shoplifter if any of these statements is true:

  • That the offender has a prior conviction for a serious offense such as murder, rape or sex crime against a minor
  • That the offender has an order to get registered as a sex offender in the state because of a previous conviction for a serious sex offense

If any of those is true, then the offender who commits the crime of shoplifting could face similar felony charges as the person who commits a California 2nd-degree burglary.

Burglary Charge Reduction to California Shoplifting

Since shoplifting is a less-severe offense when compared to California burglary, a person facing charges for 2nd-degree burglary in the state can negotiate with the court to have his/her charges reduced to shoplifting. When that happens, he/she will be facing misdemeanor charges as opposed to felony charges.

As mentioned above, the passage of Prop 47 made it possible for any person that was previously convicted with 2nd-degree burglary in California to petition the court for resentencing so that the court can reduce their charges to shoplifting. It helps in so many ways, including getting rid of the stigma associated with having a felony conviction on your criminal record.

If you feel that there is a chance to have your 2nd-degree burglary charge reduced to a shoplifting misdemeanor charge, get in touch with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. A smart attorney will know the kinds of defense strategies to use to have the court reduce our charges to a less-severe charge.

Burglary Vs. Breaking & Entering

Another California offense that is usually confused with California burglary is Breaking and Entering. The truth is that these are very different offenses, though they may seem similar in several aspects. For a person to be found guilty of California burglary, they do not need to have broken into the building or structure. You can still commit burglary if you simply enter a building through an unlocked or open window or door. You can still commit burglary if you enter an open commercial building.

The only exception to this law is when it applies to an auto burglary. California auto burglary happens when a person breaks into a locked vehicle. If you break into a property to steal, you may not be found guilty under California's burglary laws.

California burglary only requires the offender to enter into a structure or building with a criminal intention. The offender is believed to have gotten into a building or structure if part of their body, their entire body, or an object under their control has access to the outside boundary and the inside of that structure or building. The outer border, in this case, could be the part inside the building's window screen or an attached balcony on a higher floor that is only accessible from the inside of the building.

Examples of incidents that could qualify as entering a building under this law include:

  • Removing a screen from another person’s window to access the house and steal something valuable that is right inside there
  • Reaching out your hand through an open or broken window of your neighbor's house to steal a bracelet that your neighbor left on their windowsill
  • Using a ladder to get to the balcony of an apartment that is on the second floor of your building to assault the lady that lives up there sexually

Penalties for California Burglary Conviction

The punishments a person that is facing a conviction for California burglary gets is mainly dependent on the type of burglary offense they are facing charges for, whether first or second-degree burglary.

A first-degree burglary conviction in the state is a felony, attracting the following penalties:

  • Felony or formal probation
  • Two, four or six years of incarceration in state prison
  • A maximum fine of $10,000

In addition to these penalties, a 1st-degree burglary offense is a strike under California Three Strikes Law. According to the state’s Three Strikes Law, any person that is facing a felony conviction and has a prior felony conviction in their record should face a sentence of twice the term that is provided by law for the current sentence.

A 2nd-degree burglary conviction, on the other hand, is a lesser offense when compared to its first-degree counterpart. For that reason, it is a wobbler in California, which means that the defendant can either get a misdemeanor or felony conviction. The prosecutor has total discretion in deciding how to charge the offense, depending on the facts of the case and the offender’s criminal record. 

If you get a felony conviction for a 2nd-degree burglary in California, here are some of the penalties you are likely to get:

  • Felony or formal probation
  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years of incarceration in county jail
  • A maximum of $10,000 in fines

If you get convicted of a misdemeanor 2nd-degree burglary in California, the penalties you are likely to face are:

  • Misdemeanor or summary probation
  • A maximum of one year behind bars
  • A maximum of $1,000 in fines

Possible Legal Defenses to Use in Fighting California Burglary Charges

Charges for California burglary can be very severe, leaving you serving lengthy terms behind bars and paying hefty fines. It is also an offense that can harm your social and professional life. It means that a conviction can quickly ruin your life in more ways than one. That is why you need the best help in fighting your charges. An experienced criminal defense attorney in the state can do so much in ensuring that your charges are either dropped or reduced. Some legal strategies that might help your case include:

That You didn’t Mean to Commit California Theft or Felony Offense

The most critical element of a California burglary offense is the intent to commit a criminal crime once inside the said building or structure. If you didn’t intend to steal or commit a felony offense upon entry of the building, then you cannot be found guilty of the crime. Again, the timing is vital in determining whether or not the offender is guilty. If, for instance, you entered another person's house or garage with no intention to steal but formed the purpose while inside the building, you will still not be guilty under this law.

The intent is not very easy to prove by the prosecutor. Your attorney can take advantage of that to convince the jury of your innocence. If the evidence presented by the prosecutor does not entirely satisfy the court, it could reduce your charges to a minor charge.

Mistaken Facts

Mistaken facts is another common legal defense for California burglary offense and is closely related to a lack of resolve. The argument could be used in several instances such as if you get into another person's house to bring back an item that you believe belonged to you. It could also happen if you thought that you had the owner's permission to enter their home and take back the item(s) that you took. In that case, your attorney will try to convince the court you had a right to go into that house to take that which belonged to you. If the jury accepts the defense, then your charges will be dropped.

False Accusation

It is not uncommon for a person to be accused of California burglary, while in the real sense, they are not guilty. What is required of your attorney, in this case, is to prove to the court that you did not commit the alleged act. So many innocent people have been mistaken for such offenses. It could happen for such reasons as:

  • Mistaken identity: A person may accuse you of burglary because they mistake you for the real perpetrator. It is possible if you have a close resemblance to the actual offender, or you share a name with the offender.
  • Misleading evidence: If someone entered a particular property and stole valuable items, you may be suspected to have committed the offense if you were previously seen in or close to that property. Your fingerprints could also be found in the crime scene even if you were there sometime before the offense was committed for an innocent purpose
  • A person can also accuse you falsely to get back at you for something that you did to them in the past. It could also happen in case the person has a mental problem and is not fully aware of the consequences of his/her accusations

If your attorney can prove that you did not commit the offense you are accused of, the court will not have any other option but to either reduce or drop your charges altogether.

Police Misconduct

The law enforcement agents are sometimes under pressure to resolve a burglary case. For that reason, they might violate the defendant's rights or act unjustly. Some of the acts that are unacceptable when officers are investigating suspects or making arrests include:

  • Fabricating or planting evidence so that they can build a strong case against the suspect
  • Asking direct questions when they are questioning witnesses in a line-up
  • Conducting unreasonable searches in violation of the 4th Amendment
  • Coercing the suspect for a confession

If there were police misconduct in any process of your case, any evidence gathered by the said police would not be admissible in court. It is therefore advisable to let your attorney know of any misconduct you might have witnessed during and after the arrest.

Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney

A California burglary conviction is not the kind of sentence you would like to have in your criminal record. Again, the penalties such a sentence carries are severe and will alter several aspects of your life. That is why at The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm, we offer excellent criminal legal defense services to people in Los Angeles, CA. We believe in a fair ruling and respect for everyone’s rights during any legal process. Call us at 310-935-1675 and let us be present when you need it.