I recently read a police-blotter sort of article noting that the accused had been charged with “possession of burglarious tools.” That raised my eyebrows. Clearly, “burglar” and “burglary” are implied, but I’d never come across the adjective burglarious before. My thought was that it must be a strictly legal term, not much seen in colloquial use.
It turns out that this is true; but even in law the word is uncommon. It’s apparently not a term used universally, either. A (non-exhaustive) search shows that “possession of burglarious tools” is a law on the books in at least Massachusetts (where this report was filed) and also in Wisconsin, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Virginia. Almost every state has a similar statute, but most opt for the plain language “burglar’s tools.”
I bow to the Volokh Conspiracy for some good research on the term. In summary, the word dates back to at least the 1740s, with the adverbial form “burglariously” seen even earlier (the 1720s, perhaps even the 1640s). It doesn’t seem to have ever been in common use, and when even a law blog (Volokh) suggests that the term only be used for humorous effect, it’s probably safe to assume that it never will be.
In practice, the burglarious tools charge is usually used when someone is caught during a burglary, or immediately after, and it’s a way to pile on an additional charge. In some cases, it’s used to go after suspects after an unsuccessful burglary, or before they actually break in.
The idea of being charged with “possession of burglarious tools” strikes me as dangerously approaching thoughtcrime. What constitutes a burglarious tool? In what situations? If, because I have a leatherman tool on my keychain – complete with file, scissors, knives, and two sizes of screwdriver (all tools which could assist my nefarious, burglarious intent) – could I be slapped with such a charge in the absence of an obvious crime? That sort of thing is simply too easily abused. Especially when, at least for the states I checked, this charge alone carries up to a 10 year prison sentence.
This case from Richmond, Virginia, proves that the abuse isn’t simply theoretical. It’s one thing to convict someone of larceny for shoplifting. It’s quite another to add an additional charge of “possession of burglarious tools” only because the shoplifter had the gall to stick the stolen items in her purse. This is the kind of arbitrary and punitive law enforcement that gives police everywhere a bad image.
Lets hope burglarious continues to spend more time on the funny pages and less in court.
= = =
Here’s a more opaque article about someone charged with possession of burglarious tools for having a laptop computer with him; here’s one charged because he had a plastic bag in his possession. I just want to remain clear: in none of these cases are the victims claiming to be innocent of theft. It’s the burglarious piling on that’s the issue.
The story that put me on to this one: Metro Boston, Monday, December 12, 2011. Charitable Marine helps nab would-be burglar.