Burglary and Criminal Trespass in Pennsylvania

A person who commits burglary or criminal trespass in Pennsylvania can face serious prison time and hefty financial penalties.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated May 21, 2021

Pennsylvania prohibits a person's entry onto private property without permission. As discussed below, burglary and criminal trespass laws strive to protect people and their property from these intrusions.

Burglary in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania defines burglary as an unlawful entry of a building or occupied structure with the intent of committing a crime therein. The unlawful entry and intent each represent an element of the crime of burglary. (More on these elements below.)

Definitions Relating to Burglary

In order to understand what the crime of burglary entails, it's helpful to explore the meanings of some of the words contained in its definition.

Building or occupied structure. A building or occupied structure is any structure, vehicle, or place adapted for overnight accommodations of people or for carrying on business inside, regardless of whether or not a person is actually present. Examples include homes, office buildings, RVs, warehouses, and apartments.

Adapted for overnight accommodations. In determining whether a structure is adapted for overnight accommodations, courts consider the nature of the structure and its intended use, not whether the structure is in fact inhabited. Additionally, the building or structure must already be adapted for overnight accommodations. For example, a new home build, while in the construction phase, might not be considered as being adapted for overnight accommodations.

Elements of Burglary

To be convicted of burglary, the prosecutor must prove both elements of the crime—an unlawful entry and intent to commit a crime—beyond a reasonable doubt (or the elements must be admitted to by the defendant). Without sufficient proof of each element, the prosecutor may secure a conviction for some other crime (such as trespass or attempted burglary) but not burglary.

Unlawful entry. The first element of the crime of burglary—entering—requires that the person actually entered into a structure without permission to do so. The entry, which may be of any part of the body, doesn't require force. For example, using a coat hanger through a mail slot constitutes an entry. Furthermore, constructive entry by fraud, conspiracy, or threats is sufficient as well.

Intent to commit a crime. The second element of burglary concerns the defendant's state of mind at the time they entered the building. To be convicted of burglary, the defendant must have decided to commit a crime (felony or misdemeanor) and then entered the building for that purpose. Notice that the intended crime does not have to be successful or completed; entering with a criminal intent satisfies the two elements of burglary and can lead to a conviction.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3502 (2020).)

Penalties for Burglary

Pennsylvania classifies all burglaries as felony offenses. Harsher penalties exist for burglars who enter into buildings considered dwellings or where individuals are present. It's also a misdemeanor crime to possess burglar tools.

First-Degree Burglary

A defendant commits first-degree burglary by entering a building or occupied structure that is adapted for overnight accommodation, by entering a building or occupied structure where an individual is present, or both. Entering a building or occupied structure to steal drugs is also first-degree burglary. Under any of these scenarios, by statute, the offender faces up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Even though the penalty in the statute is the same regardless of the circumstances, Pennsylvania's Sentencing Guidelines ranks these scenarios by severity and recommends increasingly harsher sentences as the risk of harm increases. So a defendant who burglarizes a home where no one was present would face a less harsh sentence than the defendant who burglarizes a home where a person was present and received injuries.

Second-Degree Burglary

Although most burglaries constitute first-degree offenses, second-degree burglary exists if the illegal entry involves a building or structure that is not adapted for overnight accommodation and no one is present. A defendant convicted of second-degree felony is subject to up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Possessing Instruments of Crime; Burglar Tools

A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree by possessing any tool or instrument intending to use it to commit a crime. Such an instrument could be designed for illegal use (such as false keys) or designed for lawful use but used illegally (such as a crowbar). Penalties for this misdemeanor include up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 907, 1101, 1103, 1104, 3502 (2020).)

Criminal Trespass: Crime and Penalties

Trespass requires that a defendant knowingly entered any private property (not just a building or structure, as with burglary), without the authority to do so. This trespass might be in defiance of an order against such entry, a clearly posted sign, or a locked gate (or similar indication of private property) or by lying or using other means of subterfuge to gain entry.

Pennsylvania has several categories of trespass, depending on the defendant's intent and the type of property involved. These include:

Buildings and occupied structures. Trespass that involves entering or breaking into a building or occupied structure results in either a third- or second-degree felony. If the unlawful entry involves a breaking, the defendant faces second-degree felony penalties of up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The third-degree felony involves only an entry (no breaking) and subjects the offender to up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Defiant trespasser. A defiant trespasser enters onto property (other than buildings or occupied structures) despite actual notice against doing so. Such a trespasser can receive either: (a) a misdemeanor conviction by defying an order to leave communicated personally by an authorized person or (b) a summary offense by defying posted notices, fences, or property markings. A misdemeanor results in up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. A summary offense carries up to a 90-day jail sentence and a $300 fine.

Simple trespasser. A person commits simple trespass by knowingly entering private property (other than a building or occupied structure) with the intent to bother the owner or do some damage to the premises (damage that doesn't rise to the level of a burglary). Simple trespassing constitutes a summary offense and subjects the guilty party to up to 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.

Separate penalties exist for trespassers who unlawfully enter onto school grounds or agricultural areas.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1101, 1103, 1104, 3503 (2020).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have been charged with burglary, trespass, or a related crime, or if you have questions about Pennsylvania laws on this subject, consult a qualified local criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney can review the unique facts of your situation and advise you on how the law and local court rules will apply to your case.

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