Are Ordinance Violations Criminal or Civil Suits ?
In Borough of Falls Creek, infra, 829 A.2d 1273 at 1275 n.8, the Court addressed whether ordinance violations were criminal or civil, stating:
How to characterize prosecutions for violations of municipal ordinances has been . . . troublesome.
At common law, an action brought by the municipality for the violation of a municipal ordinance was considered a civil suit for penalty, and the normal civil burdens applied.
That issue was so well-settled that in Commonwealth v. Carter, 36 Pa. Cmwlth. 569, 377 A.2d 831, 832 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1977), the Court stated:
It has long been settled in this Commonwealth that an action instituted for violation of a municipal ordinance is a civil proceeding. Commonwealth v. Ashenfelder, 413 Pa. 517, 198 A.2d 514 (1964); York v. Baynes, 188 Pa. Super. 581, 149 A.2d 681, 50 Mun. L Rep. 309 (1959). As we stated in City of Philadelphia v. Home Agency, Inc., 4 Pa. Cmwlth. 174, 177, 285 A.2d 196, 198 (1971):
" 'So many practitioners have been broken on the anvil of the principle settled by the cases cited, that we feel strongly that it should not be put in question again in this case.' "
With the promulgation of the then new Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, the anvil was broken.
Through definitional changes, what we previously considered civil suits for penalty became penal in nature.
As explained by our Supreme Court in Borough of West Chester v. Lal, 493 Pa. 387, 391, 426 A.2d 603, 605 (1981), involving a defendant found guilty for having violated a municipal ordinance which provided for imposition of fine or imprisonment in the county jail for a term not to exceed 30 days:
The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure define "criminal proceedings" as including "all actions for the enforcement of the Penal Laws." Pa. R.Crim.P. 3(g).
The penal laws include "any ordinances which may provide for imprisonment upon conviction or upon failure to pay a fine or penalty." Pa. R.Crim.P. 3(1).
An ordinance is a "legislative enactment of a political subdivision." Pa. R.Crim.P. 3(g).
These definitions (which were in effect in 1976) remove any doubt as to the nature of the instant proceedings-they are criminal proceedings.
The Supreme Court again addressed this issue in In Re Investigating Grand Jury, 496 Pa. 452, 460-461, 437 A.2d 1128, 1132 (1981):
Under Rule 3, "criminal proceedings" include "all actions for the enforcement of the penal laws." Pa. R.Crim.P. 3(g).
"Penal laws" are defined as "all statutes and embodiments of the common law which establish create or define crimes or offenses including any ordinances which may provide for imprisonment upon conviction or upon failure to pay a fine or penalty." Pa. R.Crim.P. 3(1).
However, the inclusion of "ordinances which may provide for imprisonment upon conviction or upon failure to pay a fine or penalty" within the definition of "penal laws" does not make violations of such ordinances "crimes."
Rather, it merely reflects the established principle that, in a civil action whose object is to penalize a civil defendant for the commission of an offense against the law, protections available to defendants in traditional criminal prosecutions may attach.
More recently, the Supreme Court in Town of McCandless v. Bellisario, 551 Pa. 83, 709 A.2d 379, 381 (1998), addressed what level of due process protection was due when municipal ordinances did not provide for payment of a fine:
While the enforcement of municipal ordinances that provide for imprisonment upon conviction or failure to pay a fine or penalty must follow the Rules of Criminal Procedure, the same is not true for municipal ordinances that do not provide for imprisonment upon conviction or failure to pay a fine or penalty, which, by definition, are not Penal Laws, and are therefore not included in the definition of "criminal proceedings." Pa. R.Crim.P. 3.
The higher degree of protection provided by the Rules of Criminal Procedure does not apply to municipal ordinance enforcement actions where imprisonment is not a remedy for a conviction or failure to pay a fine.