The Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Arnold, holding that the crime of contraband is not a strict liability offense. Strict liability offenses are those which do not require a defendant to act with any mens rea or guilty conscience. They are disfavored in criminal law, and although the contraband statute does not actually identify a specific mens rea, the Superior Court found that the default mens rea of recklessness applies to this charge.
The Facts of Arnold
The defendant was arrested and detained in Butler County for a probation violation. He was transported to the Butler County Prison and placed in a holding cell. A corrections officer searched him during processing and found a pill for which the defendant did not have a prescription. The guard confiscated the pill, and the Commonwealth charged the defendant with contraband. The defendant proceeded to a trial, and he testified that he did not realize the pill was in his sock or shoe because his leg had been amputated, he wore a prosthetic leg between the knee and shoe, and he could not feel anything in the shoe as he did not have an actual foot. In addition to the pill in his sock, he had been found with another controlled substance in his cell. Later, the guards searched his cell and found three pieces of film that contained suboxone in the defendant’s wheelchair. He denied knowing about it.
The jury found him guilty of contraband and possession, and he received a 2-4 year incarceration sentence. Contraband provides for a two year mandatory minimum, so the court was required to impose the mandatory minimum sentence.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court Appeal
The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that it must find he acted with a specific mens rea in order to find him guilty of contraband and that making contraband a strict liability offense would violate due process. The Superior Court agreed.
The contraband offense is defined as:
A person commits a felony of the second degree if he sells, gives, transmits or furnishes to any convict in a prison, or inmate in a mental hospital, or gives away in or brings into any prison, mental hospital, or any building appurtenant thereto, or on the land granted to or owned or leased by the Commonwealth or county for the use and benefit of the prisoners or inmates, or puts in any place where it may be secured by a convict of a prison, inmate of a mental hospital, or employee thereof, any controlled substance included in Schedules I through V of the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L. 233, No. 64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, (except the ordinary hospital supply of the prison or mental hospital) without a written permit signed by the physician of such institution, specifying the quantity and quality of the substance which may be furnished to any convict, inmate, or employee in the prison or mental hospital, the name of the prisoner, inmate, or employee for whom, and the time when the same may be furnished, which permit shall be delivered to and kept by the warden or superintendent of the prison or mental hospital.
This statute does not include a mens rea – in other words, it does not explicitly state that a defendant must act knowingly, intentionally, recklessly, or negligently. Instead, the statute appears to provide strict liability for bringing drugs into a prison. The Superior Court, however, recognized that where the legislature does not specifically state that a serious offense should be a strict liability offense, the crimes code requires a court to read in a minimum mens rea of recklessness. Here, the trial court had not done so. It did not require the jury to find that the defendant at least acted recklessly with respect to bringing the drugs into the prison. Therefore, the Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.
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