The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Reed, holding that a detached shed counts as a “building for purposes” of Pennsylvania’s Burglary statute even where the complainant does not provide a detailed description of the structure at trial.
In Reed, the complainant rented the upstairs apartment at a given address to the defendant and his girlfriend. The property consisted of a house divided into an upstairs apartment and a downstairs apartment, a basement, and two outdoor sheds situated on off-street parking next to the house. The former tenant of the upstairs apartment which the defendant eventually rented stored his property in the smaller of the two sheds even after moving out. The owner of the property and his brother stored some of their belongings in the larger shed. When new tenants would move in, the owner of the property would inform them not to use the sheds and that they should instead store their belongings in the basement as necessary. The downstairs tenant also testified that tenants were not supposed to use or go into either shed.
On February 8, the downstairs tenant saw the defendant and his female roommate messing around inside the larger shed at 2am. Likewise, a neighbor from across the street witnessed the defendant and a female in the shed at around the same time. The neighbor approached the defendant and told him that he was not supposed to be in the shed. The defendant and the female responded that they had permission to be in the shed from the former tenant. The neighbor responded that they did not have permission and that it was not the former tenant’s shed. The defendant and the female left, but a couple of hours later, the neighbor saw them in the shed again.
Both the downstairs tenant and the neighbor told the owner of the property that people had been in the shed. Based on this information, the owner called the police and spoke with an officer. The owner told the officer that she believed that the property had been burglarized. The owner then texted a friend and asked a friend to go check on the shed. The friend did so and found that the handle and lock on the shed were broken and that there was a new, unfamiliar padlock on the right-hand side of the shed. They also reported that a truck tire and window previously inside the shed were now outside of the shed.
On some later date, the police officer, owner of the property, and owner’s friend went and visited the shed together. They discovered that about 26 items which had previously been stored in the shed were missing. These items included clothing and power tools. The owner of the property located some of these items for sale on a Facebook page. The police contacted the owner of that page and learned that the operator of the page had purchased those items from the defendant’s girlfriend.
Armed with this information, police arrested the defendant and charged him with Burglary, Criminal Trespass, and conspiracy. The defendant proceeded by way of jury trial and was found guilty. The trial court sentenced him to ten days’ to twelve months’ incarceration followed by a year of probation. The defendant appealed.
Is breaking into a shed a burglary in Pennsylvania?
On appeal, the defendant challenged the burglary and criminal trespass convictions by arguing that the shed did not qualify as a “building” or “occupied structure” under the Burglary statute. The second-degree felony burglary statute provides: a person commits burglary "if, with the intent to commit a crime therein, the person enters a building or occupied structure, or separately secured or occupied portion thereof that is not adapted for overnight accommodations in which at the time of the offense no person is present.
Likewise, a criminal trespass occurs “if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, [the defendant] breaks into any building or occupied structure or separately secured or occupied portion thereof.”
Neither statute defines burglary, and here, the Commonwealth conceded that the shed was not an occupied structure because it had not been adapted for overnight accommodations – meaning it was not set up so that someone could live in it. Therefore, the Superior Court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary for the definition of a building. The dictionary defines a building as “a structure with walls and a roof.” Here, the testimony provided that the shed was likely a structure with walls and a roof. Although no witness specifically testified that the shed had four walls and a roof, the fact that the complainant stored power tools and other belongings there and kept it padlocked suggested that it was likely fully enclosed. Therefore, the evidence supported the jury’s conclusion that the defendant had committed a burglary and a criminal trespass. Thus, in most cases, a shed will qualify as a building for purposes of the burglary statute even where the complainant does not thoroughly describe the dimensions of the shed.
Can you be convicted of burglary if you are not actually seen breaking into a building?
The defendant appealed on other sufficiency grounds, as well, but the Superior Court affirmed the conviction. For example, the defendant also argued for the criminal trespass conviction that no one had seen him “break in” as required by the statute. Instead, he had only been observed inside of the shed, suggesting that he could have arrived after someone else had already broken into it. The Court rejected this argument, however, finding that it was reasonable to infer from the evidence that he was the person who had broken the lock and stolen the items from the shed. Therefore, he will not receive a new trial.
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