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5.2: Types of Crimes

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Categorize various types of crimes.
    • Name and define the major felonies in criminal law.
    • Explain how white-collar crime differs from other crimes.
    • Define a variety of white-collar crimes.

    Most classifications of crime turn on the seriousness of the act. In general, seriousness is defined by the nature or duration of the punishment set out in the statute. A felony is a crime punishable (usually) by imprisonment of more than one year or by death. (Crimes punishable by death are sometimes known as capital crimes; they are increasingly rare in the United States.) The major felonies include murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, embezzlement, insider trading, fraud, and racketeering. All other crimes are usually known as misdemeanors, petty offenses, or infractions. Another way of viewing crimes is by the type of social harm the statute is intended to prevent or deter, such as offenses against the person, offenses against property, and white-collar crime.

    Offenses against the Person


    Homicide is the killing of one person by another. Not every killing is criminal. When the law permits one person to kill another—for example, a soldier killing an enemy on the battlefield during war, or a killing in self-defense—the death is considered the result of justifiable homicide. An excusable homicide, by contrast, is one in which death results from an accident in which the killer is not at fault.

    All other homicides are criminal. The most severely punished form is murder, defined as homicide committed with “malice aforethought.” This is a term with a very long history. Boiled down to its essentials, it means that the defendant had the intent to kill. A killing need not be premeditated for any long period of time; the premeditation might be quite sudden, as in a bar fight that escalates in that moment when one of the fighters reaches for a knife with the intent to kill.

    Sometimes a homicide can be murder even if there is no intent to kill; an intent to inflict great bodily harm can be murder if the result is the death of another person. A killing that takes place while a felony (such as armed robbery) is being committed is also murder, whether or not the killer intended any harm. This is the so-called felony murder rule. Examples are the accidental discharge of a gun that kills an innocent bystander or the asphyxiation death of a fireman from smoke resulting from a fire set by an arsonist. The felony murder rule is more significant than it sounds, because it also applies to the accomplices of one who does the killing. Thus the driver of a getaway car stationed a block away from the scene of the robbery can be convicted of murder if a gun accidentally fires during the robbery and someone is killed. Manslaughter is an act of killing that does not amount to murder. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing, but one carried out in the “sudden heat of passion” as the result of some provocation. An example is a fight that gets out of hand. Involuntary manslaughter entails a lesser degree of willfulness; it usually occurs when someone has taken a reckless action that results in death (e.g., a death resulting from a traffic accident in which one driver recklessly runs a red light).

    Assault and Battery

    Ordinarily, we would say that a person who has struck another has “assaulted” him. Technically, that is a battery—the unlawful application of force to another person. The force need not be violent. Indeed, a man who kisses a woman is guilty of a battery if he does it against her will. The other person may consent to the force. That is one reason why surgeons require patients to sign consent forms, giving the doctor permission to operate. In the absence of such a consent, an operation is a battery. That is also why football players are not constantly being charged with battery. Those who agree to play football agree to submit to the rules of the game, which of course include the right to tackle. But the consent does not apply to all acts of physical force: a hockey player who hits an opponent over the head with his stick can be prosecuted for the crime of battery.

    Criminal assault is an attempt to commit a battery or the deliberate placing of another in fear of receiving an immediate battery. If you throw a rock at a friend, but he manages to dodge it, you have committed an assault. Some states limit an assault to an attempt to commit a battery by one who has a “present ability” to do so. Pointing an unloaded gun and threatening to shoot would not be an assault, nor, of course, could it be a battery. The modem tendency, however, is to define an assault as an attempt to commit a battery by one with an apparent ability to do so.

    Assault and battery may be excused. For example, a bar owner (or her agent, the bouncer) may use reasonable force to remove an unruly patron. If the use of force is excessive, the bouncer can be found guilty of assault and battery, and a civil action could arise against the bar owner as well.

    Offenses against Property

    Theft: Larceny, Robbery, Embezzlement, False Pretenses

    The concept of theft is familiar enough. Less familiar is the way the law has treated various aspects of the act of stealing. Criminal law distinguishes among many different crimes that are popularly known as theft. Many technical words have entered the language—burglary, larceny, robbery—but are often used inaccurately. Brief definitions of the more common terms are discussed here.

    The basic crime of stealing personal property is larceny. By its old common-law definition, still in use today, larceny is the wrongful “taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with intent to steal the same.”

    The separate elements of this offense have given rise to all kinds of difficult cases. Take the theft of fruit, for example, with regard to the essential element of “personal property.” If a man walking through an orchard plucks a peach from a tree and eats it, he is not guilty of larceny because he has not taken away personal property (the peach is part of the land, being connected to the tree). But if he picks up a peach lying on the ground, he is guilty of larceny. Or consider the element of “taking” or “carrying away.” Sneaking into a movie theater without paying is not an act of larceny (though in most states it is a criminal act). Taking electricity by tapping into the power lines of an electric utility was something that baffled judges late in the nineteenth century because it was not clear whether electricity is a “something” that can be taken. Modern statutes have tended to make clear that electricity can be the object of larceny. Or consider the element of an “intent to steal the same.” If you borrow your friend’s BMW without his permission in order to go to the grocery store, intending to return it within a few minutes and then do return it, you have not committed larceny. But if you meet another friend at the store who convinces you to take a long joyride with the car and you return hours later, you may have committed larceny.

    A particular form of larceny is robbery, which is defined as larceny from a person by means of violence or intimidation.

    Larceny involves the taking of property from the possession of another. Suppose that a person legitimately comes to possess the property of another and wrongfully appropriates it—for example, an automobile mechanic entrusted with your car refuses to return it, or a bank teller who is entitled to temporary possession of cash in his drawer takes it home with him. The common law had trouble with such cases because the thief in these cases already had possession; his crime was in assuming ownership. Today, such wrongful conversion, known as embezzlement, has been made a statutory offense in all states.

    Statutes against larceny and embezzlement did not cover all the gaps in the law. A conceptual problem arises in the case of one who is tricked into giving up his title to property. In larceny and embezzlement, the thief gains possession or ownership without any consent of the owner or custodian of the property. Suppose, however, that an automobile dealer agrees to take his customer’s present car as a trade-in. The customer says that he has full title to the car. In fact, the customer is still paying off an installment loan and the finance company has an interest in the old car. If the finance company repossesses the car, the customer—who got a new car at a discount because of his false representation—cannot be said to have taken the new car by larceny or embezzlement. Nevertheless, he tricked the dealer into selling, and the dealer will have lost the value of the repossessed car. Obviously, the customer is guilty of a criminal act; the statutes outlawing it refer to this trickery as the crime of false pretenses, defined as obtaining ownership of the property of another by making untrue representations of fact with intent to defraud.

    A number of problems have arisen in the judicial interpretation of false-pretense statutes. One concerns whether the taking is permanent or only temporary. The case of State v. Mills (Section 6.7) shows the subtle questions that can be presented and the dangers inherent in committing “a little fraud.”

    In the Mills case, the claim was that a mortgage instrument dealing with one parcel of land was used instead for another. This is a false representation of fact. Suppose, by contrast, that a person misrepresents his state of mind: “I will pay you back tomorrow,” he says, knowing full well that he does not intend to. Can such a misrepresentation amount to false pretenses punishable as a criminal offense? In most jurisdictions it cannot. A false-pretense violation relates to a past event or existing fact, not to a statement of intention. If it were otherwise, anyone failing to pay a debt might find himself facing criminal prosecution, and business would be less prone to take risks.

    The problem of proving intent is especially difficult when a person has availed himself of the services of another without paying. A common example is someone leaving a restaurant without paying for the meal. In most states, this is specifically defined in the statutes as theft of services.

    Receiving Stolen Property

    One who engages in receiving stolen property with knowledge that it is stolen is guilty of a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the value of the property. The receipt need not be personal; if the property is delivered to a place under the control of the receiver, then he is deemed to have received it. “Knowledge” is construed broadly: not merely actual knowledge, but (correct) belief and suspicion (strong enough not to investigate for fear that the property will turn out to have been stolen) are sufficient for conviction.


    Forgery is false writing of a document of legal significance (or apparent legal significance!) with intent to defraud. It includes the making up of a false document or the alteration of an existing one. The writing need not be done by hand but can be by any means—typing, printing, and so forth. Documents commonly the subject of forgery are negotiable instruments (checks, money orders, and the like), deeds, receipts, contracts, and bills of lading. The forged instrument must itself be false, not merely contain a falsehood. If you fake your neighbor’s signature on one of his checks made out to cash, you have committed forgery. But if you sign a check of your own that is made out to cash, knowing that there is no money in your checking account, the instrument is not forged, though the act may be criminal if done with the intent to defraud.

    The mere making of a forged instrument is unlawful. So is the “uttering” (or presentation) of such an instrument, whether or not the one uttering it actually forged it. The usual example of a false signature is by no means the only way to commit forgery. If done with intent to defraud, the backdating of a document, the modification of a corporate name, or the filling in of lines left blank on a form can all constitute forgery.


    Under common law, extortion could only be committed by a government official, who corruptly collected an unlawful fee under color of office. A common example is a salaried building inspector who refuses to issue a permit unless the permittee pays him. Under modern statutes, the crime of extortion has been broadened to include the wrongful collection of money or something else of value by anyone by means of a threat (short of a threat of immediate physical violence, for such a threat would make the demand an act of robbery). This kind of extortion is usually called blackmail. The blackmail threat commonly is to expose some fact of the victim’s private life or to make a false accusation about him.

    Offenses against Habitation and Other Offenses


    Burglary is not a crime against property. It is defined as “the breaking and entering of the dwelling of another in the nighttime with intent to commit a felony.” The intent to steal is not an issue: a man who sneaks into a woman’s home intent on raping her has committed a burglary, even if he does not carry out the act. The student doing critical thinking will no doubt notice that the definition provides plenty of room for argument. What is “breaking”? (The courts do not require actual destruction; the mere opening of a closed door, even if unlocked, is enough.) What is entry? When does night begin? What kind of intent? Whose dwelling? Can a landlord burglarize the dwelling of his tenant? (Yes.) Can a person burglarize his own home? (No.)


    Under common law, arson was the malicious burning of the dwelling of another. Burning one’s own house for purposes of collecting insurance was not an act of arson under common law. The statutes today make it a felony intentionally to set fire to any building, whether or not it is a dwelling and whether or not the purpose is to collect insurance.


    Bribery is a corrupt payment (or receipt of such a payment) for official action. The payment can be in cash or in the form of any goods, intangibles, or services that the recipient would find valuable. Under common law, only a public official could be bribed. In most states, bribery charges can result from the bribe of anyone performing a public function.

    Bribing a public official in government procurement (contracting) can result in serious criminal charges. Bribing a public official in a foreign country to win a contract can result in charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.


    Perjury is the crime of giving a false oath, either orally or in writing, in a judicial or other official proceeding (lies made in proceedings other than courts are sometimes termed “false swearing”). To be perjurious, the oath must have been made corruptly—that is, with knowledge that it was false or without sincere belief that it was true. An innocent mistake is not perjury. A statement, though true, is perjury if the maker of it believes it to be false. Statements such as “I don’t remember” or “to the best of my knowledge” are not sufficient to protect a person who is lying from conviction for perjury. To support a charge of perjury, however, the false statement must be “material,” meaning that the statement is relevant to whatever the court is trying to find out.

    White-Collar Crime

    White-collar crime, as distinguished from “street crime,” refers generally to fraud-related acts carried out in a nonviolent way, usually connected with business. Armed bank robbery is not a white-collar crime, but embezzlement by a teller or bank officer is. Many white-collar crimes are included within the statutory definitions of embezzlement and false pretenses. Most are violations of state law. Depending on how they are carried out, many of these same crimes are also violations of federal law.

    Any act of fraud in which the United States postal system is used or which involves interstate phone calls or Internet connections is a violation of federal law. Likewise, many different acts around the buying and selling of securities can run afoul of federal securities laws. Other white-collar crimes include tax fraud; price fixing; violations of food, drug, and environmental laws; corporate bribery of foreign companies; and—the newest form—computer fraud. Some of these are discussed here; others are covered in later chapters.

    Mail and Wire Fraud

    Federal law prohibits the use of the mails or any interstate electronic communications medium for the purpose of furthering a “scheme or artifice to defraud.” The statute is broad, and it is relatively easy for prosecutors to prove a violation. The law also bans attempts to defraud, so the prosecutor need not show that the scheme worked or that anyone suffered any losses. “Fraud” is broadly construed: anyone who uses the mails or telephone to defraud anyone else of virtually anything, not just of money, can be convicted under the law. In one case, a state governor was convicted of mail fraud when he took bribes to influence the setting of racing dates. The court’s theory was that he defrauded the citizenry of its right to his “honest and faithful services” as governor.United States v. Isaacs, 493 F.2d 1124 (7th Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 417 US 976 (1974).

    Violations of Antitrust Law

    In Chapter 26 we consider the fundamentals of antitrust law, which for the most part affects the business enterprise civilly. But violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which condemns activities in “restraint of trade” (including price fixing), are also crimes.

    Violations of the Food and Drug Act

    The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits any person or corporation from sending into interstate commerce any adulterated or misbranded food, drug, cosmetics, or related device. For example, in a 2010 case, Allergen had to pay a criminal fine for marketing Botox as a headache or pain reliever, a use that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Unlike most criminal statutes, willfulness or deliberate misconduct is not an element of the act. As the United States v. Park case (Section 6.7) shows, an executive can be held criminally liable even though he may have had no personal knowledge of the violation.

    Environmental Crimes

    Many federal environmental statutes have criminal provisions. These include the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly called the Clean Water Act); the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (the Refuse Act); the Clean Air Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA); the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA); and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under the Clean Water Act, for example, wrongful discharge of pollutants into navigable waters carries a fine ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 per day and imprisonment for up to one year. “Responsible corporate officers” are specifically included as potential defendants in criminal prosecutions under the act. They can include officers who have responsibility over a project where subcontractors and their employees actually caused the discharge.U.S. v. Hanousek, 176 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 1999).

    Violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

    As a byproduct of Watergate, federal officials at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service uncovered many instances of bribes paid by major corporations to officials of foreign governments to win contracts with those governments. Congress responded in 1977 with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which imposed a stringent requirement that the disposition of assets be accurately and fairly accounted for in a company’s books and records. The act also made illegal the payment of bribes to foreign officials or to anyone who will transmit the money to a foreign official to assist the payor (the one offering and delivering the money) in getting business.

    Violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act

    In 1970 Congress enacted the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), aimed at ending organized crime’s infiltration into legitimate business. The act tells courts to construe its language broadly “to effectuate its remedial purpose,” and many who are not part of organized crime have been successfully prosecuted under the act. It bans a “pattern of racketeering,” defined as the commission of at least two acts within ten years of any of a variety of already-existing crimes, including mail, wire, and securities fraud. The act thus makes many types of fraud subject to severe penalties.

    Computer Crime

    Computer crime generally falls into four categories: (1) theft of money, financial instruments, or property; (2) misappropriation of computer time; (3) theft of programs; and (4) illegal acquisition of information. The main federal statutory framework for many computer crimes is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA; see Table 6.1). Congress only prohibited computer fraud and abuse where there was a federal interest, as where computers of the government were involved or where the crime was interstate in nature.

    Table 6.1 Summary of Provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
    Obtaining national security information Sec. (a)(1) 10 years maximum (20 years second offense)
    Trespassing in a government computer Sec. (a)(3) 1 year (5)
    Compromising the confidentiality of a computer Sec. (a)(2) 1 year (10)
    Accessing a computer to defraud and obtain value Sec. (a)4 5 years (10)
    Intentional access and reckless damage (a)(5)(A)(ii) 5 years (20)
    Trafficking in passwords (a)(6) 1 year (10)

    Key Takeaway

    Offenses can be against persons, against property, or against public policy (as when you bribe a public official, commit perjury, or use public goods such as the mails or the Internet to commit fraud, violate antitrust laws, or commit other white-collar crimes).


    1. Which does more serious harm to society: street crimes or white-collar crimes?
    2. Why are various crimes so difficult to define precisely?
    3. Hungry Harold goes by the home of Juanita Martinez. Juanita has just finished baking a cherry pie and sets it in the open windowsill to cool. Harold smells the pie from the sidewalk. It is twilight; while still light, the sun has officially set. Harold reaches into the window frame and removes the pie. Technically, has Harold committed burglary? What are the issues here based on the definition of burglary?
    4. What is fraud? How is it different from dishonesty? Is being dishonest a criminal offense? If so, have you been a criminal already today?

    This page titled 5.2: Types of Crimes is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.

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