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Bill aims to repel home invaders

Chuck Biedka
| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Efforts to make home invasion a state crime with separate penalties beyond robbery, trespassing or assault are getting a mixed review.

Home invasion represents a small, but violent, part of overall crime.

“Home invasions always spark a higher level of fear,” said Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Geiver. “Folks want and need to feel safe in their own homes.”

Research shows a large majority of home invasions occur between people who know each other.

“When someone reads about home invasion, they see themselves at risk from a stranger” but, usually, they are “done by someone with intimate knowledge or presumed knowledge of the household,” said Professor Robert D. McCrie of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

A Valley News Dispatch examination of the nearly 60 home invasions reported by police in the Alle-Kiski Valley between 2001 and 2012 shows these crimes usually involve people trying to steal money or drugs — or simply trying to get even with someone else.

Home invasions have been reported in 15 municipalities in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

About half of those towns had only one case during that period.

Harrison and New Ken-sington topped the list; each had nine.

Several involved gunshot wounds and torture, as the intruders demanded to know where money or drugs were hidden.

In one 2004 incident, a Harrison woman in a residence fatally shot an intruder who police said broke into her house and wrestled with her husband in an alleged robbery.

The most recent reported home invasion was on Jan. 25 in New Kensington.

Two young men were beaten and a young woman was raped when the armed intruders didn't find the money they thought was in the house, according to police.

New Kensington police arrested three men, who are awaiting trial.

Although a woman and her adult son were found murdered in their Arnold home Thursday night, police do not have sufficient information at this point to classify the incident as a home invasion.

Few strangers

In most cases, the suspects and the victims know each other, or at least about each other, according to A-K Valley police and a federal statistician.

In a 2010 national study, offenders were known to their victims in 65 percent of violent burglaries; offenders were strangers in 28 percent of the cases, said Shannan Catalano, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Justice, whose study evaluates victimization during household burglary. The other 7 percent involved cases where information was not available or categorized in some other way.

Invasion law proposed

State Senate Bill 1002, which would make home invasion a separate felony with a minimum of one to five years in prison, was filed in reaction to a brutal home invasion in Philadelphia County.

In that case, a market owner died and his family was assaulted because the suspects thought he brought the store's money home each night, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Michael J. Stack, D-Philadelphia County, said.

Home invasion is defined in the proposed law as occurring when someone enters a home without permission and either knows someone is home or becomes aware that someone is there, according to Stack. Then, instead of leaving, the person shows them a weapon or uses force or threatens to use force.

Five states — Michigan, Connecticut, Illinois, Florida, and Louisiana — already have home invasion laws.

In addition to Pennsylvania, home invasion bills are being considered in Maryland and South Carolina.

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh, likes Stack's bill. Although the general crime rate is going down, the home invasion rate is increasing, he said.

“Originally, individuals and homeowners were targeted,” he said. “(Now,) we frequently see individuals involved in drug trafficking.”

In 2003, Costa, reintroduced a bill to make home invasion a first-degree felony, which could result in a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.

Costa first introduced the bill in 2001 after a Point Breeze home invasion. The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but later died.

Since then, some of his measure has been added to the state's robbery statute.

Is it needed?

Harrison police Chief Mike Klein, Allegheny Township police Chief John Fontaine and Vandergrift police Chief Joe Caporali like the Stack bill because of the minimum mandatory sentences proposed.

Arnold police Chief Willie Weber favors it, but wonders: “Will it be used? It all depends on what the district attorney's office wants to bring to the table.”

New Kensington police Chief Tom Klawinski and Fawn police Chief Tim Mayberry think it would be much better for lawmakers to make home invasion part of existing burglary, breaking-and-entering, robbery and other charges.

Additional penalties won't do much to deter criminals who accept prison time as a cost of doing business, according to Chris Capsambelis, University of Tampa criminology professor and former Arnold police officer.

Geiver, the IUP professor, said there are good and bad aspects to S.B. 1002.

“The debate might be good — public awareness of a problem, more money for law enforcement — but we must also worry about unwarranted fear of crime,” Geiver said. “Quality of life is important in any city.

“We don't want our citizens fearing an unrealistic problem,” he said. “But we also don't want them to bury their heads in the sand.”

At the same time, Geiver said there would be a questionable benefit to making a new law when existing law could be strengthened.

John Jay University's McCrie believes adding penalties won't stop criminals anyway.

“The real focus should be on prevention,” he said.

“Minimum mandatories are not much of a deterrent,” he said. “It's something a politician comes up, saying, “See. I've sent a message to all no-goodnicks.”

A former Allegheny County prosecutor said most of what Stack intends is accomplished in existing law.

“If a handgun is used in a felony like a robbery, it's already a mandatory five-year sentence,” said Trudy D. Avery, now coordinator of Criminal Justice Programs at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

“It might be medicinal for people to read about a proposal,” Avery said. “We need to look at enforcement.”

Penn State University law professor Thomas M. Place said he is “confident that prosecutors in the state already have the tools to charge and convict those who break into homes and commit additional crimes and that a separate crime is not necessary.”

He further dislikes mandatory minimum law “because such sentences deprive the judge of the ability to make an individualized sentencing determination.”

Stack's S.B. 1002 still is in the Judiciary Committee after a Sept. 12 hearing. The committee won't take action on the bill until early 2013.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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