Trespass is often used as an example of a minor crime, but it isn't always the case. In Pennsylvania, some kinds of trespass are criminal offenses that can send an individual to jail for a year or more. A suit for civil damages for trespass is also possible.
Because of the potentially severe consequences, Pennsylvania law requires that anyone suing or prosecuting an individual for trespass establish that the trespasser had notice that the land was private property and knew that entry by members of the public was forbidden.
One way to give notice against trespass is for the property owner to post “No Trespassing” signs, but, in Pennsylvania, there are other ways of giving notice.
What Exactly Is Trespass?
Trespass is a term used in common parlance to refer to the entering of private property without the owner's permission. For example, an exacting homeowner might see a child take a shortcut that passes over the corner of their lawn and yell at them for trespassing. And the word is used more generally to mean intruding in any sense, like "the guest who stayed a month trespassed on their friend's hospitality."
But in legal parlance, the definition of trespass is more restrictive. It can be defined as deliberately entering onto property that the individual knows to be private against the owner's known wishes.
In Pennsylvania, this type of action can be the subject of a civil suit for money damages if the intruder injures any feature of the property or takes anything from the property. It can also result in criminal charges being brought against the offender.
Types of Trespassers in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania statutes define more than one type of trespasser and more than one type of trespassing offense. The codes refer to a defiant trespasser, a term that includes:
- Simple trespasser.
- Criminal trespasser.
- Agricultural trespasser.
- Agricultural biosecurity area trespasser.
- Trespasser of buildings or occupied structures.
Each of these terms is defined in Pennsylvania state law, and each carries a different criminal penalty.
Defiant Trespass Laws in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania law uses the term "defiant trespasser" to refer to an individual who has the requisite knowledge to be sued or prosecuted for criminal trespass.
It is defined in Pennsylvania Title 18 Section 3503 as someone who intrudes onto private property knowing that they don’t have the right to do so, or enters or remains in a place in which a notice is posted against trespassing.
In most cases, an offense of defiant trespass constitutes a misdemeanor of the third degree when the person defies an order to leave personally communicated by the owner of the premises. However, it is a misdemeanor of the first degree in Pennsylvania if the individual is on school grounds and a school official, employee, agent or law enforcement officer tells them to leave.
Simple Trespass in Pennsylvania
One type of defiant trespass is termed simple trespass. This crime is defined as occurring when a person enters or remains in a place knowing that they are not licensed or privileged to do so, for the purpose of:
- Threatening or terrorizing the owner or occupant.
- Starting a fire on the premises.
- Damaging the premises.
In Pennsylvania, this type of trespass is a summary offense.
Trespass of Occupied Building
A person commits trespass of an occupied building if their trespass involves a building or occupied structure. To constitute this crime, the person must either:
- Enter the premises.
- Gain entry by subterfuge.
Surreptitiously remain in any building or occupied structure.
Break into any building or occupied structure.
Entering or remaining in an occupied building is a felony of the third degree, and breaking and entering an occupied structure is a felony of the second degree.
Agricultural Trespass in Pennsylvania
A simple trespass can become an agricultural trespass if the land upon which the person trespasses is agricultural or other open land, and if the land is:
- Posted in a manner prescribed by law.
- Posted in a manner reasonably likely to come to the person's attention.
- Fenced or enclosed in a manner designed to exclude trespassers or to confine domestic animals.
- If the intruder was ordered by the owner not to enter or told to leave the property, yet defied the order.
An agricultural trespass offense in Pennsylvania is a misdemeanor of the third degree if the property is posted. It is punishable by imprisonment for up to a year and a fine of at least $250.
If the person refused to follow an order not to enter or to leave the property, the trespass is a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable by imprisonment for up to two years and a fine of between $500 and $5,000.
Agricultural Biosecurity Area Trespass
If the property entered by the defiant trespasser is an agricultural biosecurity area, the offense could be even more serious. It can be considered an agricultural biosecurity area trespass if there was a posted notice of the measures someone entering should take for biosecurity, and the intruder failed to perform these measures.
Entering a biosecurity area without permission can be charged as a misdemeanor of the third degree. If the person enters with permission but fails to take the precautions required, it is a summary offense. However, if the trespasser's entry injures an animal or a plant in the agricultural biosecurity area, the offense is a misdemeanor of the first degree.
What Constitutes Notice to a Trespasser?
In Pennsylvania, a property owner can provide notice against trespassing in any of several ways. It can be provided directly when the owner or their agent tells the person not to enter or tells them to leave, once they have entered. The owner can also give the trespasser direct written notice by handing them a letter warning the trespasser not to enter the property.
But it is also possible in Pennsylvania to provide notice by fencing the property in a way that is designed to keep people out. This might be a stone wall or a fence of wood or wire, or any similar structure.
Giving Notice via No Trespassing Sign
Posting a "no trespassing" or "trespassing forbidden" sign on the property is another method a Pennsylvania property owner can employ to give notice to potential trespassers.
While some states specify the size, design and content of an effective no-trespass sign, Pennsylvania does not. Rather, the code simply requires that the notice is posted “in a manner prescribed by law or reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders.”
Note that it is not necessary that the sign list the name of the property owner, or even specify the property lines. The owner does not need to put their signature on the sign. A property owner can simply make or buy a sign that states: “No Trespassing,” “Keep Out” or “Private Property.” The sign should be large enough that a trespasser is likely to see it and placed in an area where trespassers coming onto the property are likely to see it.
Purple Paint Markings
The purple paint law is a relatively new law that gives landowners yet another method of giving a trespasser notice. This law allows property owners to provide legal notice against trespass by painting purple marks on their trees or posts no more than 100 feet apart.
The markings must be in stripes, at least 8 inches long and 1 inch wide, positioned between 3 and 5 feet from the ground. The homeowner must use one of the commercially available purple “No Hunting” paints.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.