Lear v. State (1931)

US Criminal Law

Lear v. State
‘Buchanan General Store’ by David Boyd

Theft without violence or fear of violence upon the victim cannot constitute robbery, as was demonstrated in this simple case of taking without a vendor’s consent in 1931.

Having entered the store of a Buckeye resident at the point of their opening it, the appellant took the opportunity to make off with a bag containing $33 while the shopkeeper was attending another task nearby, after which he was later arrested and confessed to stealing the money.

Indicted in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, the appellant was then charged and convicted of robbery under § 4602 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, which read that:

“Robbery is the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear. The fear may be either of an unlawful injury to the person or property of the person robbed, or of a relative or member of his family; or of an immediate and unlawful injury to the person or property of any one in the company of the person robbed at the time of the robbery.”

However the appellant challenged the judgment in the Arizona Supreme Court on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to show beyond a reasonable doubt that he had subjected the vendor to any form of physical struggle, or that he had even uttered a single word to him during the act, whereupon the court sought clarification on the definition of robbery, and so turned to the English case of R. v Thomas Gnosil, in which the Court of Assizes had held that:

“[T]he force used must be either before, or at the time of the taking, and must be of such a nature as to shew that it was intended to overpower the party robbed, and prevent his resisting, and not merely to get possession of the property stolen.”

And to State v. Parsons, where the Washington Supreme Court had also held that:

“[I]t is not robbery to merely snatch from the hand or person of another, or to surreptitiously take from another’s pocket, money or some other thing of value, as such taking lacks the element of force, or putting in fear, one or the other of which being essential to constitute the crime of burglary.”

While the court further noted that § 649a of Grigsby’s Criminal Law stated that:

“No sudden taking unawares from the person, even done with force, as by snatching a thing from one’s hand, or out of his pocket, is sufficient to constitute robbery.”

Therefore the court held with considerable certainty that although the vendor had been cause distress as a result of his pecuniary loss, the appellant had on this occasion, been deft enough to avoid confrontation, and so the court reversed the previous judgment and remanded the case back to the superior court while holding that:

“The mere taking of property in possession of another, from his person or immediate presence and against his will, is not robbery. Such taking must be accomplished by force or fear to constitute robbery.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Trainee Solicitor, Legal Author and Foodie...

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