Criminal Trespassing: Laws and Penalties

Criminal Trespassing

Property owners have the right to use their land in any manner they see fit as long as they do not violate any laws. Exercising this right includes the exclusive use of the property and keeping other people out. Entering or staying in someone else's property without prior permission is a crime.

What is Criminal Trespass?

A person commits criminal trespass whenever he enters private property, knowing he doesn't have the right to enter. Remaining on someone else's land after learning that he or she doesn't have the right to do so also falls under criminal trespass. Trespassing can happen on both public and private property. An individual does not have to receive a verbal warning that the area is off-limits. 
Even when a property owner gives prior consent to a person to enter a structure, it is still trespassing if the person refuses to leave despite orders from the owner to vacate the premises. The best example here would be a house guest who refuses to go or homeless people living illegally in private or public spaces. 

Trespassing Specifics

Intent

For an individual to commit trespassing, he must enter a property, knowing that he does not have explicit permission to do so. Choosing to remain on the property after learning that he does not have the right to be there also constitutes trespassing. For instance, a hiker wandering into someone else's land by mistake is not considered criminal trespass.

Warnings and Notices

In many states, it is a requirement to put up warning signs or notices to warn people that the area is off-limits. A person caught trespassing on private property cannot be convicted if a sign is not present. However, trespassing laws differ for each state, and a person can still get arrested for trespassing, even when there is no sign or fence present.

Acts Considered Trespassing

fishing on someone else's land

Each state has a general description of what trespassing is and an outline of specific acts that can be considered a crime. These acts are:

  • Hunting or fishing on someone else's land.
  • Cutting down trees or harvesting crops without permission. 
  • Tampering with private property, such as vending machines or CCTVs. 
  • Entering or staying in someone else's vehicle without consent. 
  • Entering a public space, knowing it is not allowed at the time (closed for maintenance or renovation).
  • Remaining in a public space even after ordered to leave. 

The Criminal Trespassing Law Defined

The crime of criminal trespassing is more than being on someone else's property without prior consent. Trespass is a criminal offense. If someone gets caught trespassing on another person's property, she can face a civil lawsuit. The definition of criminal trespassing varies for each state's interpretation of the law. 
Depending on the state, typical elements of criminal trespassing includes:

  • Intentionally entering private property without prior consent, knowing the area is off-limits.
  • Intentionally remaining on private property without consent or even after ordered to leave.

Criminal Trespass Punishment

Criminal Trespass Punishments

While criminal trespass is related to burglary, it is not considered a serious crime. It is not even included in statistical data about crime trends in the U.S., which only covers violent crime and property crime. The property crime statistics only cover burglaries, where theft was the primary intent. Trespassing is often an infraction or a misdemeanor and will usually not go on a person's record. 
However, it can become a felony if the circumstances of the case are severe enough. A range of penalties awaits an individual convicted of criminal trespassing, and in most cases, the courts do not impose fines, long probation periods, or even jail. The potential penalties for criminal trespass differ among states. The laws of the state will determine whether a trespassing conviction can lead to significant jail time or other sanctions. 

Degrees of Criminal Trespass

The severity of trespassing varies for every state. For instance, a state might have laws that penalize both first and second-degree trespassing. 

The first-degree trespass is more severe and usually involves entering a home, structure, or land marked as private. 

Second-degree trespass is a less severe offense where a person enters a property that has no sign or isn't fenced-off. Remaining on a property even after told to leave may be considered second-degree trespass.

Jail

State laws allow judges to impose a jail sentence for trespassing onto private property. However, convictions that result in significant jail time are rare. The potential jail sentence for trespassing convictions may range from several days to several months. For more severe trespassing crimes, some jurisdictions allow up to a year or more in jail. 

Fines

An individual convicted of trespassing may face a fine as a penalty. The imposition of fines may either be separate or in conjunction with a jail sentence. Trespassing fines vary from a few hundred dollars to as much as $5,000 or more. Penalties depend on state law and the circumstances of the crime.