At what point have I committed a crime?
August 10, 2015 2:09 PM   Subscribe

At what point in the following hypothetical sequence of events would I have committed a crime? (You are not my lawyers)

In a publicly accessible building, there is a stairwell. At the ground floor, there's a small metal gate (about waist height, does not meet the opposing wall, impossible to lock). This gate is not marked with any kind of "keep out" signage. Behind this gate are stairs to a locked basement door. Beside the door is a metal hide-a-key with a combination lock, which presumably contains the key to the basement door.

1. I walk past the gate and down the stairs to the hide-a-key
2. I attempt several incorrect combinations
3. I successfully guess the combination and open the hide-a-key
4. I remove the key from the hide-a-key
5. I unlock the basement door
6. I open the basement door
7. I enter the basement.

Obviously by step 7 I have committed breaking and entering. But before that step, would I have committed any crimes?
posted by JDHarper to Law & Government (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Where in the world are you while doing this hypothetical thing? Laws and definitions obviously vary.
posted by brainmouse at 2:13 PM on August 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

The State of Rhode Island.
posted by JDHarper at 2:16 PM on August 10, 2015

Step 1 is trespassing, regardless of signage.
posted by odinsdream at 2:19 PM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Under the common law it is a crime to attempt to commit any misdemeanor or felony. The basic components of attempt are:
  1. a specific intent to commit a crime and
  2. an act that takes a step toward completing the crime.
Thus I would not rely on any of the preparatory steps not being crimes in themselves.
posted by jepler at 2:20 PM on August 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

By step 2, certainly, you are attempting breaking and entering.
posted by rachelpapers at 2:21 PM on August 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Making this post could be charged in some jurisdictions as conspiracy to commit burglary, since you're trying to collude with others to plan a burglary, even if you never go anywhere near the building you've written about.
posted by decathecting at 2:23 PM on August 10, 2015 [10 favorites]

But yeah, I'd say step 1 would get you in some trouble in a lot of jurisdictions.
posted by decathecting at 2:23 PM on August 10, 2015

In my state, and probably Rhode Island too, you have likely committed burglary at step zero, when you entered the building with intent to commit a crime. It might depend on what you plan to do in the basement though, since simple trespassing might not be enough to trigger the burglary charge (needs to be a felony or vandalism in CA, I think).

But hey, if you're black and poor, step zero could totally turn into a felony and a strike, so you know, talk to a lawyer.
posted by ryanrs at 2:24 PM on August 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

1) Simple trespass
2)Attempted B and E or trespassing
3) Breaking/Trespassing
5) Entering/Trespassing
7) B and E
also depends on what you intended to do during/after this process.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:25 PM on August 10, 2015

Rhode Island statute 11-1-1 makes any offense at common law punishable in that state.
posted by jepler at 2:25 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

In California burglary requires the intent to commit a felony or any theft (except that we have now changed it a bit for entering a store that is open for business with the intent to commit petty theft; that is no longer burglary). No "breaking" is required; all you have to do is enter with the required intent.
posted by xeney at 2:26 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is the question you're interested in, but you've done something enforceable at step 2. If you are not a legitimate user of the property, and you were caught doing this, you could probably be arrested and perhaps convicted of attempting to break in.

Step 1 you could probably get by with the "oops, I got turned around" excuse, and most cops would just get you to move along even if they suspected more.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:32 PM on August 10, 2015

Step 1 is trespassing, regardless of signage.

But the gate at the ground floor of a stairwell at waist height is almost certainly a stairwell interruption gate: a fire safety feature rather than a barrier meant to exclude entry. It's certainly not trespassing to pass through a stairwell interruption gate in a publicly accessible building, is it?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:45 PM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I feel like once you are guessing the code of a combination lock to break in, you are trespassing. The lock doesn't need to say "authorized access only" on it because that is the point of a lock. I am not a lawyer or a cop, but it sure sounds like at least one law is being broken, if you get caught.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:46 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

rather than a barrier meant to exclude entry.

OP said it was a publicly accessible space. Not a public building. Trespassing doesn't require you to cross a physical barrier. If you're on the property and the owner wouldn't want you there, that's pretty much all you need.
posted by odinsdream at 2:55 PM on August 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

It's certainly not trespassing to pass through a stairwell interruption gate in a publicly accessible building, is it?

That link says right in it that stairwell interruption gates can be used to prevent unauthorized people from accessing certain areas.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:47 PM on August 10, 2015

Trespassing happens when you step onto private property that you don't have permission to be on. If this is a private building (even if it is "publicly accessible"), then you are trespassing as soon as you walk past the gate.
posted by amaire at 5:16 PM on August 10, 2015

I would have to say that you are committing a crime as soon as you have begun trying to guess the combination, because at that point you can not claim to just be lost in the building. You would be showing the intent to trespass.
posted by LilithSilver at 5:28 PM on August 10, 2015

Speaking from experience with this on the reporting side, step 1 or 2 is enough to at least get stopped, questioned, and either moved along or arrested by the cops.

And this is speaking as someone who both worked with their parents on managing a large building, and lived at a building that sketchy stuff perpetually happened around.

Step 1 is also definitely trespassing, at least in my state. I've white-passing-dude-in-dress-shirt-acting-clueless'ed my way out of it before, but it is.
posted by emptythought at 6:07 PM on August 10, 2015

I'm with those who say the answer is likely "step 0", when you entered the building with the intent to commit a crime. That you are very unlikely to be stopped and arrested at that point since it isn't clear you intended to break the law until a later step doesn't change the answer.
posted by Justinian at 6:35 PM on August 10, 2015


1 may or may not be trespassing depending on local law (whether there's a notice requirement)
2 onwards is certainly a crime (attempt burglary up to burglary when you go through the door)
posted by falconred at 6:36 PM on August 10, 2015

There's a sort of Schroedinger's Cat Burglar (sorry) thing happening at Steps 0 and 1. If Step 2 is "Realize you are in the wrong place, leave the building" then no crime is ever committed, but if the story continues as you have laid it out, the crime has begun at Step 0, or possibly even before, if there was any conspiracy involved in the planning process.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:54 PM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

If the door was the door to your house, which step would you want randos from the street to be able to do at will without the cops being able to do anything about it?
posted by ctmf at 7:01 PM on August 10, 2015

To head off anyone else who feels like memailing me about this question:

A) I am not actually planning to break into somebody's basement. Obviously. I was having a discussion with a friend about the security of the hide-a-key, which is a cheap model with a deceptively limited number of combinations. I would not actually go and try them, just on a general golden rule basis. But it made me curious as to original question above, and whether you could be convicted of breaking and entering if you never actually entered.

B) I had marked mr_roboto's answer as best answer because it was the most interesting one to me, since I had never thought about stairwell interruption gates before. I went ahead and marked odinsdream's answer as best answer as well because it seems like it is the most correct.
posted by JDHarper at 7:37 PM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

The law of attempts can be quite harsh. Under common law, a person may be criminal culpable for as soon as the person has taken a substantial step towards committing a crime. A substantial step is anything beyond mere preparation. Step 1 in your list would be adequate for that, assuming the state could prove intent.

But the state doesn't even have to prove a substantial step; even being within dangerous proximity of committing a crime while intending to commit that crime is enough for a conviction.

Realistically, it would be very difficult to prove intent merely from step 1, but it is legally possible.
posted by skewed at 9:51 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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