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It is in the news that it has become a thing to stage a bank "robbery" to get access to ones own money in Lebanon. While these have involved things that are undoubtedly crimes (such as brandishing a toy gun, and pouring gasoline and threatened to set it on fire), if one had an opportunity to take your money without the banks permission but not committing any other crime (perhaps as a result of another incident, see picture), would that be illegal?

Reason for heists

Lebanon has been reeling from a worsening economic meltdown since 2019, plunging 80 percent of its population – about three million people – below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.

Since 2019, Lebanese banks gradually imposed draconian controls on deposits, effectively locking millions of customers out of their foreign currency savings.

“Every time you want to withdraw money, it would be at a rate much lower than the market value,” said Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr. “For example, if you want to withdraw $700, they gave you $200. So that’s a de facto haircut.”

Any jurisdiction would be interesting, this is occurring in Lebanon but one could imagine it happening anywhere if a financial crisis occurs.

The glass facade of a bank in the Lebanese capital Beirut is broken, after a woman stormed it demanding access to her sister's deposits to allegedly pay for her hospital fees, on September 14, 2022

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    If my bank balance says I have $1000 in my account and they are refusing to give it to me, then even if I sneak into the bank and quietly and carefully take only the $1000 dollars that they owe me, then at the end of that operation, my account balance will still say $1000.
    – Brandin
    Sep 20 at 12:49
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    Even if they reduce your balance to $0, now the bank has even less money for all the other customers. The people have $10,000,000 (for example) in their bank accounts, but the bank only has $1,000,000. So it would be "fair" if you only took $100 out of your $1000 account, and called it even with the bank. Any more, and you'd be taking other people's money.
    – user253751
    Sep 20 at 17:12
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    @user253751 The definition of "fairness" in this situation has been the subject of many, many debates throughout history and civilisations, especially in the case where an individual dies while indebted to several creditors, with not enough money to share between all creditors.
    – Stef
    Sep 21 at 14:12
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    What if I steal the money from Bill's house or Fred's house? Sep 22 at 9:45
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    @ComicSansSeraphim I joined just to upvote your comment.
    – NotHulk
    Sep 22 at 13:09

5 Answers 5

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The physical cash in the bank is not your property, at least not in US law (according to Scalia). It becomes your property when the withdrawal is performed by some means specified in your contract. A deposit gives you a contractual right to demand money from the bank.

Bank robbery is a crime. Having money deposited with the bank doesn't change that. The only possible chance a robber has at trial is jury nullification.

I haven't found records for that in Lebanon, but it does have jury trials.

Impartial review classifies Lebanon's justice system as somewhat corrupt, but generally compliant with the basic principles. So it might be possible to get away with it at trial, but a very long shot.

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    According to the answers to this question, it is your money before you perform a withdrawal and when a third party gets the bank to give them your money it is theft against you.
    – User65535
    Sep 20 at 11:50
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    @User65535 you should consider that bank account dollars aren't the same thing as actual dollars. If someone else uses your bank card, they are stealing your bank-account-dollars. The bank teller lets you exchange your bank-account-dollars for actual dollars. (I don't know whether this is a valid legal principle)
    – user253751
    Sep 20 at 17:13
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    Scalia's statement is correct. Indeed, strictly speaking, for most purposes, a bank deposit is only a contract right and not a property right, vis-a-vis the bank.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 20 at 18:46
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    @Trish Can I demand a trial-by-jury to defend myself against informing a jury about Jury nullification? Sep 21 at 15:08
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    To misquote George Bailey, your money isn't physically IN the bank. Its in the bank's investments. Its in your neighbor's house.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 22 at 15:03
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The condition you set of "not committing any other crime" could be tricky. In many (most?) jurisdictions, if the bank were to leave a box full of notes in the teller hall, or even on the street outside, it's still theft to take any of it. Just because you can physically take something unchallenged, doesn't mean you can legally do so.

Whether you'd actually be prosecuted for such an act is debatable by location, but it's likely still a crime. In locations with reasonable law enforcement, you can expect that a judge would be required to decide if it was a punishable offence or not (so you'd be arrested, charged, detained, tried, etc). In less well managed locations, a bit of "mob rule" or "police judgement" may apply. That is what appears to be happening in the picture above - "the mob" have decided it's not a punishable crime. Time will tell if law enforcement will take a different view when they investigate (if they investigate at all).

The thinking behind this is that whilst the bank "owes" you what you've deposited, they still get to decide how they repay you. You're not their only customer, and so they have to manage repaying all their customers (hopefully fairly). If there's a "run on the bank", for example, they would ration the money they have to each person looking to withdraw. You'd be rightly annoyed if the richest person in town got all their money and you didn't, for example.

By way of a tangential example, some years ago in the UK, rioters broke doors and windows to several shops. At a later time, some people walked into those shops and took some of the goods. They were subsequently prosecuted for theft.

The difference here is they weren't "owed" those goods by the shops, but the point is that even though they were able to take the goods unchallenged, they were still committing a crime. Doors, safes, security guards etc, or lack thereof don't affect the law.

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Bank robbery is probably illegal in Lebanon, but one would have to sift through the penal code. Somewhere around Article 690 there is probably a law against forcibly stealing the property of another. Article 638 (2) specified the penalty for what seems to be "bank robbery":

-إذا وقعت السرقة على أموال أو موجودات مصرف أو محل للصياغة أو للصيرفة.

which Google tells me says "If the theft occurred on the money or assets of a bank, a goldsmith's shop, or a money exchanger".

This clause would be incomprehensible if, under Lebanese law, a bank is simply a storage facility for the physical property of individuals (the reasoning that seems to underlie the "it's my money" claim). It is reasonably well established that banks in Lebanon can legally use deposits, which is why they can pay interest. Also, the central bank (apparently) has the authority to boss around banks in Lebanon, and they have restricted access to funds.

A separate question is whether banks can legally prevent a customer from accessing their safe-deposit box (on the premise that because of the crisis, they may have to seize all property). That seems much less credible.

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Consider the case that a bank is bankrupt. People paid one billion into savings accounts, and they have only 500 million to pay back. Everyone will lose half their money. If you put a million into your savings account and force the bank to hand over a million to you, you are definitely stealing half a million from the other debtors.

Plus of course all the other arguments given here.

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    @paulj that's irrelevant to the specific bankrupt bank.
    – RonJohn
    Sep 21 at 13:38
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    "Everyone will lose half their money." On average, but not in our reality: 1% will get 99% of their money back, and 99% will get 1% of their money back.
    – bishop
    Sep 21 at 14:34
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    @bishop In the US, almost all 'small' depositors will have their accounts fully covered by the FDIC. It will only be the 'large' depositors in danger of losing money, and that only if they had just dumped all their money into a single bank. So 99% will get 100% of their money and 1% might lose some. Sep 21 at 15:14
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    @paulj: Not infinite, but the existence of fractional reserve banking does mean that there's a lot more money than there is cash.
    – dan04
    Sep 21 at 16:50
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    @user253751: Indeed. People complain about central banks "printing" money, but the problem here is that people demand physical (printed) money instead of electronic balances. And there's not enough printed money to satisfy that demand. Of course, actually printing it would just delay the problem, see Weimar and more recently Zimbabwe.
    – MSalters
    Sep 22 at 13:09
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The root problem is that if the bank is "in trouble", the government will have proscribed a specific procedure for how its assets are to be distributed to creditors such as yourself.

You are bypassing that procedure to favor yourself at the expense of other depositors.

We already have that in US bankruptcy. Suppose a company goes bankrupt under Chapter 11, and when the assets are liquidated, the proceeds only cover 30% of the debt. Each creditor gets 30% of their owed amount. However, one creditor was buddies with the owner and got 100% out before the bankruptcy filing. The courts can and will "claw back" the excess 70%. BTDT!

So even if you succeeded in taking 100% of your deposit back, if the national law only provides for you to get 30%, then you did steal the 70% and did deprive that money from other creditors and depositors, and that means unjust enrichment did occur, and that makes the method by which you got it definitely a crime.

Which it probably would be, even if unjust enrichment had not occurred, because the actions of breaking windows or waving a gun around are crimes in and of themselves.

There actually is a legal procedure (in the US) for walking into a bank with a gun and forcibly taking money out of teller drawers. It is called a "Till Tap" and the gun is on the hip of the Sheriff. You get it after you win a suit for money judgment, and they non-cooperate with the normal collection procedures.

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