Criminal Trespass — Building or Occupied Structure, 18 Pa.C.S.A. 3503(a)(1)(i) – Must Tenant Be Evicted Under Landlord Tenant Act Before Criminal Trespass Charges May Be Filed Against Him?
Property owner verbally agreed that four people, including defendant, could live in her vacant house in exchange for agreed rental and repairs to the house. The renters were the property owner’s nephew, his wife, the wife’s mother, and the wife’s mother’s boyfriend, the defendant. The arrangement did not work out and the property owner eventually told the renters to leave. All did except defendant, who paid no rent, repeatedly refused to leave over a period of months, illegally turned the water service back on after it had been turned off, and “subletted” rooms in the property to others. Property owner did not bring action in eviction under Landlord Tenant Law but complained to authorities, resulting in defendant’s indictment and conviction for criminal trespass. Superior Court affirmed, reasoning:
We acknowledge that self-help evictions are disfavored in the law. See Lenair v. Campbell, 31 Pa. D.& C.3d 237, 242 (Pa.Com.Pl. 1984) (the legislature envisioned the Landlord Tenant Act as a “complete and exclusive remedy for a landlord seeking to vindicate his rights”); see also O’Brien v. Jacob Engle Found, Inc., 47 Pa. D.&C.3d 557, 560 (Pa.Com.Pl. 1987).
However, as stated above, the Commonwealth decided to charge appellant criminally in this case. Appellant cites no authority for the proposition that if [property owner] could have filed a landlord/tenant action seeking appellant’s eviction in magisterial district court, her failure to do so foreclosed alternative means of redress, including criminal charges. Ultimately, it was the Commonwealth that made the decision to charge appellant with criminal trespass, a violation of the Crimes Code. When the evidence is viewed most favorably to the Commonwealth, as is our standard of review, it fully supports the conclusion that appellant knew he was not licensed or privileged to remain on the property but persisted in doing so nonetheless, thereby exposing himself to criminal liability.
Slip op. at 14.
The Supreme Court granted allocatur to decide whether a tenant who has not been evicted under the Landlord Tenant Law may be prosecuted for criminal trespass based on his continuing occupancy of the residence.