Generally, to commit the crime of trespassing, you need to know that you are entering private property without the land owner’s permission. In addition, you might be charged with trespassing if you enter without knowing that the property is private, but you refuse to leave even once you’re asked to do so.
This even includes situations in which you were invited to the property first. If you’re invited over as a guest, but you won’t leave when the property owner asks you to, you are trespassing. Criminal trespassing laws are enforced by local agencies like the police, park rangers, and sheriffs.
There is a difference between criminal and civil trespassing, whether your case is tried at the federal or state level. Criminal and civil proceedings have different legislation surrounding them. There are also very different consequences for convictions of criminal versus civil acts.
Civil lawsuits occur when a landowner wants the trespasser to pay them restitution for harm they did to the property when they trespassed. The owner of the land must show that their property was harmed if they want to be awarded restitution. They also cannot ask for money beyond what would be reasonably required to repair the damaged area.
With a civil case, there’s no need for the owner of the land to prove that the other person intended to cause harm. They do need to prove that there was intentional trespassing. Civil cases are tried in state courts, so the exact laws governing them are different depending on the state you’re in.
With criminal proceedings, the one who charges the defendant is the district attorney instead of the landowner. They are trying to get a criminal conviction for trespass, which can involve sentencing that includes prison time and fines.
Regardless of the type of case, it must be proven that the person was on the property while knowing they didn’t have the landowner’s permission. Wandering onto another person’s land by accident is not enough to start civil proceedings or criminal ones.
To prove intent, the judge will usually look at the outside circumstances surrounding the case. In some cases, the situation is clear cut. For example, being told explicitly that you are not welcome on the property is a provable measure of intent. In addition, if you enter a property that has clearly marked “No Trespassing” signs, the judge might decide you had intent to trespass.
Consequences for Trespassing
In the vast majority of cases, criminal trespassing penalties are decided by state courts rather than federal ones. The exact penalties will vary depending on the state. For the most part, you can expect there to be several different degrees of severity.
First degree crimes are the most serious. First degree trespassing is often used when a person entered a property without permission because they intended to commit another crime on that property. You might also face first degree trespassing charges if you trespassed in a place like a power plant, which is critical to infrastructure.
If a person is charged with trespassing in the second degree, the consequences will be much less serious. This crime typically applies to trespassers who enter properties that do not have clear markings to deter trespassing. They might have known that they were entering another person’s private property, but they didn’t technically know they didn’t have permission to enter.
Some states have both felony and misdemeanor trespassing charges. Felonies are serious, typically involving at least a year in prison. Misdemeanors are less serious, with consequences of up to a year in jail.
You’re more likely to be charged with a felony if you brought a firearm onto the property or if you’re accused of planning to commit another crime. The same is true if you bring explosives or illegal substances onto the property.
Sometimes trespassing charges might be filed if you harm part of a person’s property on purpose. You might tamper with the trees on another person’s property, or you might enter a vehicle you don’t own without the permission of the owner.
Though state penal codes often allow for jail time in trespassing cases, it is rare for a judge to actually sentence people to jail. Fines for trespassing also tend to be small, especially if the person who trespassed doesn’t have a lot of money. A conviction might mean you have to pay the court costs for the case.