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Commonwealth v. Raban

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

February 12, 2014

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Appellee
v.
SIMON RABAN, Appellant

ARGUED: March 5, 2013

Appeal from the Order of Superior Court dated October 5, 2011 at No. 3132 EDA 2010, affirming the Judgment of Sentence of the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, dated October 11, 2010 at No. CP-15-CR-845-2010.

OPINION IN SUPPORT OF REVERSAL

MADAME TODD, JUSTICE.

The issue in this appeal by allowance is whether a second violation, within one year, of Section 305(a)(1) of the Pennsylvania Dog Law ("Dog Law"), [1] which makes it illegal, inter alia, for an owner to fail to confine his or her dog and which is graded a misdemeanor of the third degree, is an absolute liability offense. 3 P.S. § 459-305(a)(1). For the reasons that follow, we would find that it is not an absolute liability offense, but, rather, that the Commonwealth must establish that the accused acted intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(c), and so we would reverse the determination of the Superior Court.

The underlying facts of this dispute, as found by the trial court, are as follows. On July 7, 2009 at approximately 7:15 p.m., "Muncy, " Appellant Simon Raban's black giant schnauzer, which was not restrained by a leash or electric fence collar, left Appellant's premises, crossed Barrington Road in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, and attacked a Bernese mountain dog named "Hubble." Hubble and his owner, Austin Alvin, were walking on the opposite side of the street in front of Appellant's residence when Muncy approached and grabbed Hubble by the neck. While Alvin reported that Hubble limped after the incident, the dog did not sustain any long-term injury. Approximately 10 to 15 minutes after the events occurred, a neighbor, George Sawicki, observed Appellant place an electric fence collar on Muncy's neck.

The West Vincent Township Police Department responded to a call concerning the matter, and Appellant was issued a citation pursuant to Section 305(a)(1) of the Dog Law. Five months earlier, as stipulated to by the parties, Appellant had been convicted of a violation of Section 305(a)(1) for failing to properly confine his dog. Following a bench trial in the instant case, the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County found Appellant guilty of a second violation of Section 305(a)(1), a misdemeanor of the third degree, 3 P.S. § 459-903(b)(2), and sentenced him to six months of non-reporting probation and a $500 fine. In so doing, the trial judge determined that, because Section 305 imposed absolute liability for a violation of the statute, the Commonwealth was not required to establish evidence of Appellant's intent or knowledge. Trial Court Opinion, 2/2/2011, at 3, 7. Appellant appealed his conviction.

In a unanimous, published opinion, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court affirmed Appellant's judgment of sentence. Commonwealth v. Raban, 31 A.3d 699 (Pa.Super. 2011). Before the court, Appellant claimed, inter alia, that the trial court erroneously interpreted Section 305(a)(1) to have no culpability requirement, improperly rendering Appellant absolutely liable for the violation. The Superior Court, after reviewing prior case law from both the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court, affirmed the trial court's conclusion that scienter was not an element of the offense.

Specifically, the Superior Court reviewed Baehr v. Commonwealth ex rel. Lower Merion Twp., 414 A.2d 415 (Pa. Cwmlth. 1980), which interpreted former Section 702 of the Dog Law, the identically-worded predecessor to Section 305(a)(1), and found that the mandatory nature of the offense and the predominating concern for public safety, as well as the difficulty in establishing culpability, led to the conclusion that Section 305 imposed absolute liability. Similarly, the Superior Court also relied upon its own subsequent decision in Commonwealth v. Glumac, 717 A.2d 572 (Pa.Super. 1998), wherein the court stressed that the purpose behind Section 305 was to require dog owners to prevent their dogs from roaming the streets, and that the protection of the public's health and safety is best attained when dogs are secured or accompanied when not confined.

Based upon Baehr, as well as Glumac, the Superior Court in this matter reasoned that the legislative intent under Section 305 favored the interest in protecting the public from roving dogs. According to the court, the plain language of the statute mandated that it "shall be unlawful" to fail to keep at all times one's dog within the confines of one's premises. Therefore, the court opined that the mandate to confine one's dog was stated absolutely, and not in terms of reasonable care, which, in its view, would complicate the ascertainment of culpability, and frustrate the legislative intent. Thus, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court's finding that there was no scienter element in Section 305(a)(1).

This Court granted allocatur to determine whether Section 305(a)(1) of the Dog Law is an absolute liability offense. As the issue before us is a pure question of law, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review plenary. Buffalo Twp. v. Jones, 813 A.2d 659, 664 n.4 (Pa. 2002).

Section 305 of the Dog Law makes it illegal for an owner to, inter alia, fail to confine his or her dog, and provides:

It shall be unlawful for the owner or keeper of any dog to fail to keep at all times the dog in any of the following manners:
(1) confined within the premises of the owner;
(2) firmly secured by means of a collar and chain or other device so that it cannot stray beyond the ...

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