California Supreme Court Rules on Key Difference between Burglary and Attempted Burglary

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Burglars will do almost anything to break into a home, including using any means at hand – like the garage door opener stolen from your car. The use of evolving technology clearly creates opportunities for home intruders to gain entry to the home without the “forced entry” that is common in a typical burglary. But what if the burglar does not actually go into the home, even after creating an easy means of entry? In ruling on what can best be described as a finer point of the law, the California Supreme Court has now taken a stand on what exactly constitutes a burglary, as told in this news story.

Applying a centuries-old criminal law to the electronic age, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that residential burglary – entering a home with felonious intent – is not committed by someone who is arrested after using a remote control to open a garage door. Although the suspect may have intended to break into the home, “he did not commit burglary because he did not enter the residence. Nothing penetrated the outer boundary,” said Justice Goodwin Liu in the unanimous ruling.

A Big Break for One Would-be Burglar

That means Christopher Magness, jailed since his arrest in July 2010 outside a Sacramento home, can be convicted only of attempted burglary, punishable by up to three years in prison, said his lawyer, Arthur Bowie, an assistant county public defender. Residential burglary is punishable by up to six years.

Background on the Case

The court said a homeowner heard the door opening, ran into the garage and saw Magness standing outside. He chased Magness on a bicycle and then called sheriff’s deputies, who arrested Magness. On the driveway they found the remote control, which he had apparently taken from the owner’s car by peeling away a door seal and reaching inside, the court said. Prosecutors charged Magness with burglary, relying on a case in which a would-be assailant kicked in the door of a man’s home but never went inside.

Supreme Court Reverses Lower Court Ruling

A state appeals court ruled in 2007 that burglary had been committed because the door was an “instrument” under the defendant’s control and was used to enter the home. That reasoning was flawed, the state’s high court said Thursday. Burglary, Liu said, requires either a physical entry into the home – possibly by the foot that kicks in the door – or some instrument or tool that crosses the threshold, like a drill through a wall or a tire iron that pries the door open.

Basis for the Decision

“Something that is outside must go inside for an entry to occur,” Liu said. He said Magness’ alleged actions were comparable to those of a would-be intruder who slid open an unlocked glass door but was arrested before entering. Bowie said the ruling made sense. By charging the more serious crime only after physical entry, the defense lawyer said, “you’re giving perpetrators pause to think about what they’re doing.

Garage Door Openers Frequently Used by Burglars

Here’s one example of many articles you can find online that describe this trend. This one is from Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison police said burglars are using garage door openers stolen from vehicles to try to enter homes on Madison’s far west side. The Madison Police Department took several reports early Tuesday morning involving home burglaries, or attempted home burglaries, on Strongbridge Drive, Sabertooth Trail, and Parker Hill Drive. Police said the perpetrators were breaking in to vehicles parked in driveways or streets. They not only stole items from inside the vehicles but also used garage door openers to try to enter homes by checking to see if doors into homes — from garages — were unlocked, police said.

And here’s another article – this time from Seminole County, Florida.

In Seminole County, it isn’t your typical break-in. Burglars are using residents’ own garage door openers to break into garages across Casselberry, Altamonte Springs and Longwood. Often times, getting into a home is the hardest part of a burglary, but with these burglaries, the bandits just walk up and press a button and have perfect access. Police said thieves hit seven homes in a Casselberry neighborhood filled with manicured lawns and nice cars. Many of the homes advertise they are protected by alarms and the community has a big gate. But gates and alarms don’t help much when thieves have access to your garage by stealing the door opener from unlocked cars or by breaking into the cars.

What You Can Do

  1. Start by locking your car. Some of our customers even lock their cars when in the garage – and make sure to take the car keys inside.
  2. Make sure you have a monitored alarm system. Wireless home security provides the two most important “D” words: deterrence and detection. Studies have shown that a home with a monitored alarm system is only one third as likely to experience a burglary as the unprotected house next door.
  3. Add a wireless garage door sensor to your home security program. These smart sensors can even send you a text or email if the garage is left open longer than x minutes (you can set your own interval).

With residential crime on the rise across much of America, it’s easier than ever to make the case for getting a home alarm system to protect your home and family. And the next-generation alarm companies like FrontPoint also offer fire monitoring, smarter interactive features, and even home automation for remote control of light, locks, and thermostats. All these advanced features are just part of what makes FrontPoint the leader in interactive, wireless home security. But, we are primarily in the business of providing peace of mind – and that starts with your intrusion alarm system. When you are ready for safer, smarter, simpler, more affordable, and virtually impossible to defeat – think FrontPoint.

Comments (8)

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  1. Alan

    Interesting and informative post, Peter.

    Though not as helpful in deterring thieves, it seems this was a very reasonable decision by the court.

    David, great point you make about home address in GPS units. One of those things that in hindsight seem completely obvious, but most of us are not used to thinking like a criminal much. It is a good reminder we should more often, perhaps. Unless you are one though, not likely you will truly think like one, but still…. it helps.

    • Peter M. Rogers

      Thanks, Alan – and good point. I periodically post about what reformed (and unreformed) burglars have divulged about their tactics and approach. And you are right – they think and act in ways that are hard for me to understand. It’s good to be reminded that not everyone thinks the way we do – whether about crime, or about other things in life as well! Thanks again.

  2. Alan

    Interesting and informative post, Peter.

    Though not as helpful in deterring thieves, it seems this was a very reasonable decision by the court.

    David, great point you make about home address in GPS units. One of those things that in hindsight seem completely obvious, but most of us are not used to thinking like a criminal much. It is a good reminder we should more often, perhaps. Unless you are one though, not likely you will truly think like one, but still…. it helps.

    • Peter M. Rogers

      Thanks, Alan – and good point. I periodically post about what reformed (and unreformed) burglars have divulged about their tactics and approach. And you are right – they think and act in ways that are hard for me to understand. It’s good to be reminded that not everyone thinks the way we do – whether about crime, or about other things in life as well! Thanks again.

  3. david

    Theives are also breaking into cars at the malls, kids sporting games and such. They are looking for garage door openers and gps units with the persons return address. This enables the theives to drive to the persons house and use their garage door opener for easy entry. If you must use a return address on your gps, use a gas stations address a block away. You should never have your home address in your gps.

    • Peter M. Rogers

      David – great advice, and I’ll admit it had not occurred to me. Of course, anyone stealing my car is just as likely to have the GPS direct them to FrontPoint, and that could be bad news for a burglar! Thanks.

  4. david

    Theives are also breaking into cars at the malls, kids sporting games and such. They are looking for garage door openers and gps units with the persons return address. This enables the theives to drive to the persons house and use their garage door opener for easy entry. If you must use a return address on your gps, use a gas stations address a block away. You should never have your home address in your gps.

    • Peter M. Rogers

      David – great advice, and I’ll admit it had not occurred to me. Of course, anyone stealing my car is just as likely to have the GPS direct them to FrontPoint, and that could be bad news for a burglar! Thanks.

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