There have been a string of robberies targeting pizza deliverymen in Philadelphia that draw out an important detail about Pennsylvania's laws concerning burglary.
Criminal defense lawyer Joseph D. Lento explains.
Two Pizza Deliverymen Robbed in Philadelphia
On Sunday, February 24, a pizza deliveryman was robbed while on a delivery. Then, on February 27, another deliveryman was shot and killed during the course of another robbery in the Overbrook Park neighborhood.
Police think that the incidents are related because in both cases the delivery was being made to a house that was either under construction or uninhabited and whose back entryway had been forced open by the suspected robbers.
Details Matter in Pennsylvania's Burglary Law
While the robbery and the killing are the focus of the ongoing story and investigation, an interesting question is whether the apparent perpetrators are also committing burglary.
In Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, burglary is outlined in 18 Pa. C.S. § 3502 and involves entering a building with the intent to commit a crime. However, § 3502(b)(1) permits an important defense: It is not burglary if the building was abandoned at the time of the alleged offense.
But what does it mean for a building to be “abandoned”?
Abandoned Buildings and Burglary Law
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has weighed in on the issue of building abandonment in burglary cases several times.
The first and most influential statement about what it means for a building to be “abandoned” for the purposes of Pennsylvania's burglary statute comes from the 1980 case Commonwealth v. Henderson. That case involved several people getting into a vacant church through a window on North Broad Street in Philadelphia and taking several things of value. When they were charged with burglary, they claimed that the building was abandoned. However, the court refused to allow abandonment as a defense because
- the church had been up for sale for several months,
- it had not been used for two or three months,
- there were locks on the doors,
- none of the windows were broken or boarded up, and
- the property caretaker visited almost every day and the church's lawyer visited once a week.
In the court's eyes, this fell short of the generally accepted definition of an “abandoned” building as one that is “wholly forsaken or deserted.”
A subsequent Superior Court case from 2013, Commonwealth v. Canty, fell along similar lines: The door was locked and the gas was still operational in the house, so it was not abandoned.
Especially important for the pizza delivery robberies was the fact that the court in Canty said that a house that “appeared to be under construction” indicated that it was not “abandoned” for the burglary defense – “the existence of that type of activity demonstrated that the house, contrary to being abandoned, was being repaired so that it could be occupied.”
However, courts have also noted that the burglary law in Pennsylvania was designed to protect the occupants of a house, not visitors.
It will be interesting to see whether prosecutors press charges for burglary.
Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Joseph D. Lento
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer who represents those accused of wrongdoing in Philadelphia. Contact him online or call his law office at (215) 535-5353.