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My understanding is that if a person commits a theft, the theft is considered more or less 'severe' depending upon the value of the item(s) burglarized. If this is true, how would that work for an item like keys, whose inherent value I'd assume is somehow related to what it unlocks? If a person stole:

  1. keys to an empty house
  2. keys to a safe containing 1MM USD
  3. keys to a new car
  4. keys to a recognized sensitive area (police evidence locker)

would these be considered the same 'levels' of crime or is there some consideration of the value attached to what the key secures? Or would there be additional charges layered on that differentiates the value of what's being protected?

  • Theft in the US is usually governed by state law, not federal. So if you have a particular state in mind, please add an appropriate tag. Otherwise, as in my answer below, people might cherry-pick states to which they happen to find the answer. – Nate Eldredge May 31 '16 at 4:21
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Although I don't think there's a general principle that stealing a key is equivalent to stealing what it unlocks, some jurisdictions may certainly have laws that punish the theft of a key more severely.

For instance, see the North Dakota Criminal Code, section 12.1-23-05, which grades theft offenses. Paragraph 3i provides that:

Theft under this chapter is a class C felony if: [...] The property stolen consists of a key or other implement uniquely suited to provide access to property the theft of which would be a felony and it was stolen to gain such access.

So if you steal $50,001 in cash, you are guilty of a class A felony, punishable by 20 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $20,000 (see Chapter 12.1-32).

If you steal a key that unlocks a safe containing $50,001 in cash, and it can be shown that you stole the key in order to gain access to the cash, you are guilty of a class C felony, punishable by 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $10,000.

If you steal a key blank that doesn't unlock anything, but has similar intrinsic value to a key (say, a couple of dollars), then you are guilty only of a class B misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days imprisonment and/or a fine of $1,500.

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    So the big crime is stealing the key PLUS intent to use it to steal more. – gnasher729 May 31 '16 at 7:49
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    @gnasher729: A typical house key will open many thousands of different houses, and a typical car key will operate hundreds or thousands of cars. Charging the thief with the value of everything a key could unlock would be grossly unreasonable given that most keys would be useless to anyone without particular knowledge of what they operate. What's important is whether the theft of the key indicates the intent to steal something else. – supercat Jun 1 '16 at 16:05
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like keys, whose inherent value I'd assume is somehow related to what it unlocks?

Putting aside that the inherent value of a key is the market value of the brass it contains: I think you actually meant extrinsic value.

This is just not so.

If I steal your wallet (worth, say $10) and it contains $30 in cash and your bank card (attached to accounts worth $2.4 billion, lucky you) then unless and until I use that card the value of what I have stolen is $40: that is your loss.

The same applies if I steal your car key but never take your car.

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    You're answering how you think things should be, not what the law actually is. – Justin Lardinois Jun 1 '16 at 14:30
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    The other answer seems to indicate that the intent counts. So if you enter the bank with my card, you would be guilty. If you call a taxi to the bank with my card in your pocket, you might be guilty. – gnasher729 May 28 '18 at 19:32

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