It may seem like such a simple thing, but trespassing can cause you big problems. Depending on the state and the extent of any damage, the trespasser can be charged with anything from a misdemeanour to a felony. It is important to know that you can be charged with trespassing on either public or private property.
What Exactly is Trespassing?
Trespassing refers to being on property that you should not be on, and there are two types; criminal and civil. Criminal trespass refers to deliberately going onto the property when you do not have permission to do so or remaining when asked to leave.
If you cause damage to the property, you stand a real chance of being charged with a felony. Civil trespass on the other hand refers to the situation where the property owner must sue the trespasser for any damage done while on the property. According to the Cornel University’s Legal Information Institute website (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/trespass), trespassing is ‘…knowingly entering another person’s property without permission’. You can also be trespassing if you are asked to leave and you decide to remain in defiance of the owner’s request.
States have different names for the types of trespassing. For example, in New Jersey, you can face charges of defiant trespassing or unlicensed entry to a structure. The former is a less serious offence than the latter.
You can be charged for trespassing if your animal wanders onto the property of someone else and causes any kind of damage. In some states, you will be responsible only if your animal damaged items or crops in an enclosed area.
What is the Punishment for Trespassing?
This can vary significantly although in most states trespassing charges do not result in a custodial sentence. In some states, criminal trespassing can be second or first degree. First degree is the more serious type and results from being on private property that has signs or other indication that there should be no trespassing. With second degree trespassing, there is no clear indication that trespassing is not allowed. In some cases, not leaving a premises after being told to leave can be seen as second degree trespassing.
For most cases of trespassing the punishment is a fine, but generally not a very high one. In some jurisdictions you may be placed on probation. In rare cases, a person found guilty of trespassing will be sent to jail. Repeat offenders and people with criminal pasts are more likely to face stiff penalties when charged with criminal trespassing. So, if you ever wondered if you can get arrested for trespassing, the answer is yes.
If you trespass without knowing you are not supposed to be on the property, some judges (if the matter reaches that stage), will more than likely have your charges dropped. However, if you entered and became unruly when asked to leave, then you can be charged.
Trespassing charges also tend to be different for minors in most states. For example, many minors who trespass, whether to create mischief or not, can face punishment that includes a fine or community service. Of course, harsher penalties may be applied depending on whether the minor is a repeat offender or has done major damage to the property.
Can Trespassing be a Felony?
While in the majority of cases trespassing is seen as a misdemeanor, in some states, it can be labelled a felony. In most cases the difference between being charged for a misdemeanour or a felony for trespassing depends on factors such as the monetary value of any damage done, and whether or not the owner wants to press charges.
Steps for Keeping Trespassers at Bay
While someone who wants to trespass will do so, there are steps you can take to help prevent this. Two of the most common methods are putting up a fence around the perimeter of the property or putting up a ‘no trespassing’ sign. Some government agencies actually have guidelines that help you to prevent trespassing The Department of Natural Resources in Maryland has tips on sign posting (http://www.aglaw.umd.edu/blog/frequently-asked-questions-hanging-no-trespassing-signs). The website advises putting up many signs in areas where they will be clearly visible. The guidelines also suggest putting signs near to entrances to the property so anyone attempting to enter can see them.
In New York, guidelines include the size of the signs to be used. According to New York State Department of Environmental Protection (http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/8371.html), the size should be no less than 11 inches by 11 inches.
While trespassing is not generally a major crime, getting legal advice is important. For example, your lawyer can argue on your behalf that you were unaware that you were trespassing as there was no sign or fence. However, any type of damage to private property can result in trespassing charges whether or not you were aware that you were trespassing.