Most states take property rights very seriously. Someone caught trespassing on someone else’s land can face a civil lawsuit or even criminal charges, depending on the location and the reason for trespassing. Criminal trespass is typically categorized according to the seriousness of the crime. As such, it comes with a wide range of penalties.
What Is Criminal Trespassing?
Criminal trespass occurs when an individual intentionally enters someone else’s land or property without permission. Intent is important here – if the trespasser accidentally wanders onto someone else’s land while hiking, for example, that typically is not considered to be criminal trespass.
Notice is required in most states, meaning it must be obvious that the property is off limits. A clear “No Trespassing” sign will usually do the trick, as will security fencing or a locked door on a private home. Some states are prescriptive about the size and lettering required for “No Trespassing” signage – landowners who are worried about trespassing should always check local laws.
Read More: What Is the Typical Sentence for Criminal Trespassing?
The Categories of Criminal Trespass
It’s hard to generalize about the various categories of criminal trespassing, since each state has its own laws. Generally though, most jurisdictions identify two or three types of criminal trespass, known as trespass in first, second or third degree. The lower the number, the more serious the crime. Thus, third-degree trespass is a lesser charge than second-degree trespass, and second-degree trespass is a lesser charge than first-degree trespass.
In North Carolina, for instance, someone who deliberately enters property that’s specifically designed to keep intruders out is likely to be charged with first-degree trespass. An example here would be if someone wandered through an open door or scaled a fence to get into someone’s home. If the intruder wandered onto someone’s land and refused to leave when asked to do so, or ignored “No Trespassing” signage, the second-degree trespass would be the most likely charge.
The difference between first and second-degree trespass can be subtle, and it often it comes down to the location of the trespass. Many states use the charge of first-degree criminal trespass to describe a trespass within a building, such as someone’s home or place of business. With second-degree criminal trespass, the trespasser usually will be outdoors on someone’s land.
Some States Have Special Rules
Some states use the degrees of criminal trespass to describe the nature of the intrusion rather than the seriousness of the crime. In Colorado, for example, second-degree trespass is unique because it not only covers the situation in which an intruder intentionally enters someone’s land, but also the situation where someone intrudes into the common areas of hotels, motels and apartment buildings, or into someone’s motor vehicle but without the intention to commit a crime. So if someone got into the backseat of a car and refused to get out, she could potentially be arrested and charged with second-degree trespass.
What's the Significance?
The degree of criminal trespass determines the penalty for the crime. In North Carolina, for example, first-degree trespassing is a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to 60 days in jail. Second-degree trespassing, by contrast, is a Class 3 misdemeanor and is punishable by a maximum $200 fine and up to 20 days in jail. In Washington state, second-degree trespass is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.
Each state has its own definition of second-degree trespassing. Generally, it occurs when someone intentionally enters land (as opposed to entering a structure) without permission, ignoring fencing or “No Trespassing” signs.
- Caulder and Valentine Law Firm: North Carolina's Criminal Trespassing Laws
- Colorado Legal Defense Group: Second-Degree Trespass Law in Colorado
- Emerald City Law Group: Seattle Criminal Trespass
- North Carolina General Assembly: Chapter 14 - Criminal Law Article 22B - First and Second Degree Trespass
- Washington State Legislature: Title 9a Chapter 9a.20; Section 9a.20.021
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous legal blogs including Quittance, Upcounsel and Medical Negligence Experts.