From the Thief in the Night to the Guest Who Stayed Too Long: The Evolution of Burglary in the Shadow of the Common Law

40 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2011 Last revised: 29 Sep 2012

See all articles by Helen A. Anderson

Helen A. Anderson

University of Washington - School of Law

Date Written: July 1, 2011


Burglary has been evolving away from the common law crime almost as soon as Lord Coke defined it in 1641 as breaking and entering a dwelling of another in the night with the intent to commit a crime therein. It expanded early on to include breaking and entering buildings, not just dwellings, and the breaking requirement was little more than symbolic in many jurisdictions. But, sometime between the publication of the 1962 Model Penal Code and today, burglary lost its core, its actus reus: “entry.” In the majority of jurisdictions, burglary can now be accomplished by simply remaining in a building or vehicle with the intent to commit a crime. Not only does such an offense cover a wide range of situations, but it allows burglary to be attached to almost any crime that occurred indoors, and justify a significant additional penalty – even death. Burglary thus functions as a “location aggravator” for other crimes. Paradoxically, it may be the shadow of the common law crime that has obscured the breadth and significance of these changes. Burglary’s long tradition and pedigree gives an illusion of solidity to the charge, even when it no longer necessarily describes real criminal conduct beyond the target offense.

This is the first survey of burglary in the United States since the Model Penal Code. It begins with a summary of burglary’s history from the common law definition through the first two centuries of the republic, then explains the Model Penal Code proposal for burglary – as well as the Model Code authors’ misgivings about the offense. The article then looks in detail at what happened in the states after the Model Penal Code – how the common law elements continued to erode until we ended up with today’s very thin crime. The article shows what this has meant: a serious crime with significant penalties that can be invoked in a range of situations, e.g., shoplifting, hold-up of a gas station, or murder by a houseguest. It concludes that burglary’s evolution has in some instances gone too far, and no longer necessarily describes a distinct offense. It is only the memory of the common law offense that keeps courts and lawmakers from recognizing how empty the crime has become.

Keywords: Criminal Law, Burglary, Legal History

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Helen A., From the Thief in the Night to the Guest Who Stayed Too Long: The Evolution of Burglary in the Shadow of the Common Law (July 1, 2011). University of Washington School of Law Research Paper No. 2011-17, 45 Indiana L. Rev. 629, Available at SSRN:

Helen A. Anderson (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States


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