CRIMINAL LAW

Dog Law • Absolute Liability • Absurdity Doctrine

Commonwealth v. Raban, PICS Case No. 14-0263 (Pa. Feb. 12, 2014) Eakin, J. (23 pages).

Where a criminal statute uses the word “fails,” without modification, such language is indicative of the legislature’s intent to make the statute an absolute liability offense. Affirmed.

Appellant Simon Raban appealed from his conviction for a second violation under the Pennsylvania Dog Law, after his giant schnauzer left his property and attacked another dog. Raban argued that the statute is not, as the commonwealth contended and the trial court ruled, an absolute liability statute, but must be read with a scienter element. Raban argued that imposing absolute liability could lead to potentially absurd results, improperly elevated prosecution convenience to a primary concern, and ignored the requirement that legislative intent to impose absolute liability plainly appear. The commonwealth argued that the legislative intent to do away with mens rea is evident from the plain statutory language and the omission of a scienter requirement; furthermore, it argued that Raban’s application of the absurdity doctrine was misguided in the instant case, as the doctrine only applies to correct obviously unintended dispositions, and, as the commonwealth asserted, it was the intent of the legislature to impose absolutely liability.

The court found that the statute in question was one of absolute liability. The court noted that although absolute liability criminal offenses are generally disfavored, and courts are not to construe an absolutely liability offense absent a legislative directive to do away with mens rea. It further noted that where the statutory language is not explicit, courts may, in ascertaining legislative intent, “the mischief to be remedied,” “the former law,” and “the consequences of a particular interpretation.”

The court found that legislative intent to impose absolute liability plainly appeared in the statute’s use of the word “fail” without any modifier or other consideration of intent or excuse. It analogized the statute to speed limit laws, where the reasons for failing to drive within the speed limit are irrelevant, and to the absolute liability laws applicable to the keeping of exotic animals — where an owner makes a decision to have an animal, the owner has an absolute responsibility to keep the animal confined or controlled. The court noted that finding a scienter element would lead to the absurd result of applying strict liability to the first violation of the statute, but adding a mens rea element to a second violation.