Trespassing

The act of trespassing is knowingly entering another person’s property without that person’s permission. Trespassing is a criminal offense, with penalties ranging from a violation to a felony. When someone commits a trespass against another person, rather than against his property, then the trespasser can be charged with assault or battery. To explore this concept, consider the following trespassing definition.

Definition of Trespassing

Noun

  1. An illegal act that causes injury or damage to another person or property.
  2. The wrongful entry upon another’s property.

Verb

  1. To commit a trespass.
  2. To wrongfully enter another’s property.

Origin

1250-1300       Middle English trespassen

No Trespassing Signs

It may seem like private property should automatically be protected by the law from trespassing, which makes “No Trespassing” signs, or “Keep Out” signs, seem redundant. However, there are valid reasons as to why a property owner may post No Trespassing signs. For one, the public may consider a wilderness area to be public property, when it is actually owned by a rancher or other property owner. Without No Trespassing signs being conspicuously posted on the grounds, people may think it is otherwise okay to camp, fish, or hunt on that property.

According to the law, No Trespassing signs serve as written notice that the land is private property. Whoever sees such a sign cannot legally enter or stay on the property, nor can they participate in any activities that are occurring on that property. Legally, if someone must enter the property, they should ask the owner of the property for permission to be on the land. However, the owner of the property may not be present at all times, and so the signs are necessary to warn the public to keep out.

If there are no signs posted, no fence put up, and the land has not been obviously worked on, then the land can be assumed to be public property. The law tries to maintain a balance between landowners’ rights and the rights of the public to enjoy land. However, if a piece of land has been improved upon, used, and fenced in, then trespassing on this land is officially illegal. If the owner of the property asks the trespasser to leave either verbally or in writing, then the trespasser must leave. Trespassing laws vary, depending on the state.

Trespassing Laws

Trespassing laws vary, depending on the state, the seriousness ranging from citable offenses to felonies. Following are a few examples of trespassing laws:

California

California’s trespassing laws dictate that anyone who enters onto private property without permission from the owner is guilty of trespassing. Additionally, a person is guilty of trespassing if he enters onto unrefined and open land where signs are posted that forbid trespassing. Offenders can be fined $75 for a first offense and $250 for a second offense. On the third offense, offenders can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Florida

Florida’s trespassing laws are greatly detailed and extend to several circumstances that would constitute trespassing. In the most basic terms, trespassing occurs when someone enters onto a property and remains there without being authorized to be there. It is also a crime in Florida to damage or remove any signs posted with regard to keeping trespassers off of property.

The signage itself must also meet stiff requirements. For instance, signs cannot be placed more than 500 feet apart around the boundaries of the land, and the words “no trespassing” must accompany any of the additional text on the sign. The text must also consist of letters that are no less than two inches in height.

Minnesota

In Minnesota, people entering onto private property and/or staying there without consent are trespassing. Minnesota too has some of the most detailed trespassing laws in the country. They also have specific requirements insofar as trespassing signs are concerned. For example, trespassing signs for locked buildings must be 8.5″ x 11″ in size, and must be placed in a conspicuous location on either the exterior of the building or on the property where the building sits.

The rules change for signs at construction sites. One of those rules is that the number of signs that must be placed increases per every 10 acres of land. The signs must also display use a font that is at least two inches high for maximum visibility. Violators can suffer different penalties, depending on the areas onto which they are trespassing.

Montana

Entering and remaining on someone’s private property in Montana without having a license or permission to be there constitutes trespassing. However, unless the landowner specifically posts a sign that explicitly denies others’ entry onto their property, they are effectively giving them permission to enter. Montana also has several detailed rules regarding the proper use of trespassing signs. For instance:

“Notice must be placed on a post, structure, or natural object by marking it with written notice or with not less than 50 square inches of fluorescent orange paint, except that when metal fence posts are used, the entire post must be painted.”

New York

In New York, regardless of the trespasser’s intent, it is a crime to enter and remain on someone’s property when the intruder is neither licensed to be there, nor given the permission to enter. Signage is important here too, as trespassers can be absolved of guilt in certain situations if there are either no signs posted, or if signs are posted that can be considered inefficient in that they are not readily visible. Charges for trespassing can range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the situation.

Criminal Trespass

The difference between trespassing and criminal trespass boils down to the individual’s intent. Whether or not a person will be charged with a violation or a misdemeanor all depends on the circumstances in which he was found to be on the property. In New York, for instance, a civil violation for trespassing can be charged as a class B misdemeanor, while first degree trespassing can be charged as a class D felony.

Class B misdemeanors, in this case, can be charged upon the unauthorized entry onto a property that is fenced in, or into a building that is used by the public, such as an elementary school or a public housing project. Class A misdemeanors in New York involve entering someone’s home without permission, while class D felonies are charged upon trespassing with a deadly weapon.

Under Pennsylvania law, criminal trespass occurs when the trespasser knows that he is not licensed or permitted to be on someone’s private property but enters or stays on the property anyway, and commits an additional crime in the process. Examples of trespassing that can be escalated to a more serious charge include instances in which the following actions are committed by the trespasser:

  • Threatening the landowner, or another occupant of the property
  • Starting a fire
  • Defacing the property in any way

Typically, criminal trespass is prosecuted as a misdemeanor. However, it can be prosecuted as a felony if the trespassing results in injuries or damage to a person on the premises, or to the property itself.

Trespassing Example Involving Racial Discrimination

An example of trespassing that was heard by the Supreme Court occurred in 1964. In June of 1960, five black college students were part of a protest that picketed the Glen Echo Amusement Park in Montgomery County, Maryland for its discriminatory policies. The park explicitly excluded blacks from using its facilities, though it did not post signs detailing its exclusionary policy. There was also no requirement that those who wished to visit the park had to purchase tickets for admission. The five students used tickets that others had purchased and boarded one of the park’s carousels.

One of the park’s employees, who also happened to be a deputy sheriff, saw the students and told them that they were not allowed to be on the rides. They were given five minutes in which to leave the premises. The students remained, however, and after their five minutes were up, the park employee/sheriff’s deputy arrested the youths for criminal trespass. The students were all convicted of criminal trespass in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, and were ordered to pay fines of $100.

The students appealed their convictions to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The Court upheld the convictions, noting that their arrests were “an enforcement by the operator of the park of its lawful policy of segregation,” and that no further action was required by the state.

The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court noted that the pivotal issue in this case was whether or not the students’ exclusion from the park was based on state action. On that note, the Court concluded that the park employee who arrested the students was “exercising his authority as a deputy sheriff,” as opposed to his right as an individual under the law.

The Court held that the sheriff had arrested the students for committing a misdemeanor right in front of him. This made the arrest “no different from what it would have been had the arrests been made by a regular policeman dispatched from police headquarters.” Therefore, the Court ordered that the students’ convictions be vacated inasmuch as they were violations of the students’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.

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