Trespassing is a broad legal term that can refer to a variety of wrongful or unlawful acts. Typically, it is defined as knowingly and intentionally entering the property of another person without the owner’s permission. More broadly, it can refer to a number of unlawful acts that are committed on another person’s body or that person’s property. Committing trespass can result in both criminal and _civil legal liabilit_y.
Specific laws and penalties for violating those laws vary by jurisdiction, but in general, trespassing is a misdemeanor offense. In some cases, however, trespassing can become a felony offense if the circumstances warrant, such as when the trespasser is armed with a weapon.
Making a Report to the Police
To ensure that another person is properly charged for criminal trespassing, the property owner will need to identify and describe the person to local law enforcement. Typically, this is either the sheriff's office or the local police department for the county or municipality in which the property is located. The owner should also describe the individual’s basic physical appearance, including approximate height and weight, apparent gender, race and clothing.
Ideally, the property owner should arrange to meet the police officer or sheriff's deputy at the physical location of the trespass. If the person trespassing has left the premises, the owner can walk the property and describe the trespass to the law enforcement official. However, it is important to remember that some trespassers may harbor violent intentions, and people making trespass reports should never put themselves in additional danger by waiting outside or attempting to confront the trespasser themselves.
Describe the circumstances, such as whether the individual was asked to leave the area or establishment and did not comply. If signage is posted warning against trespassing, this should also be called to the officer’s attention. It’s important to explicitly state to the police officer or sheriff's deputy that you would like to press or file criminal trespass charges.
Obtaining Information About the Case
As the victim in the case, the property owner will receive a copy of a no-trespass citation or order. You are also entitled to information about the disposal of the case, such as whether the trespasser enters a plea, pays a fine, or requests a trial.
Criminal Penalties for Trespass
In most cases, trespassers will not be sentenced to any substantial imprisonment terms. Typically, penalties for misdemeanor trespass include a few days to a few months in the local jail. In some cases, where the defendant has been arrested and placed in the local detention center pending trial, the court may impose a sentence of “time served.” This means that the judge is crediting the defendant with the number of days spent in detention as part of the eventual trespass penalty.
Courts will also often impose a fine either in lieu of or in addition to any jail sentence. Fines are usually established by state criminal statutes, and they may be as little as a few hundred dollars or as steep as several thousand dollars. Judges typically are granted wide discretion in imposing criminal fines for trespass and other crimes. Defendants may also be required to pay court costs of $100 or more.
Read More: Federal Criminal Trespassing Laws
Bringing a Civil Lawsuit Against Trespassers
In addition to seeking criminal charges, a property owner may also file a civil action against an individual who trespasses on private property. Unauthorized entry onto private property interferes with the owner’s exclusive right to enjoy their property.
Civil lawsuits for trespass can compensate the property owner for any actual damage to the property as well as potential damages for the trespass itself. To prevail on this type of tort action, a plaintiff must prove the following:
- The defendant had a legal obligation not to enter the property of the plaintiff;
- The defendant knowingly and intentionally came on the plaintiff’s property despite that obligation;
- As a result, damage was done to the property or the plaintiff.
Defending Property Against Trespassers
Often, when trespasses recur frequently or damage is inflicted on the property in question, property owners are tempted to defend their property in some fashion. Doing so can, in some jurisdictions, expose the homeowner to legal liability to the trespasser for any resulting injuries.
Owners are not obligated to protect trespassers, as they are unauthorized “guests” on the property who are present on the property without permission to be there. However, in some circumstances, the owner may be liable if the trespasser is injured on the property.
Typically, an injured trespasser must prove four elements before holding a property owner liable for injuries sustained during a trespass:
- The property owner created or maintained a dangerous condition on the property;
- It was foreseeable that the condition would likely cause serious physical injury or death;
- The owner had reason to believe that people trespassing on the property would not learn of the condition in time to avoid injury; and
- The property owner did not take reasonable precautions or actions to warn others about that condition and the dangers inherent in it.
If the trespasser adequately establishes these four facts, the homeowner may be held liable for the individual’s damages, including the costs of medical care.
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.