Criminal Trespassing Laws and Penalties

You can face trespassing penalties on public or private property, as long as you have some type of notice that you are not or no longer welcome on the property.

By | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

A property owner has the right to use his or her property in any manner that is not otherwise prohibited by law. Part of this right includes being able to use the property exclusively and preventing other people from entering the property without permission. Trespassing is a crime where someone else enters or stays on the property without consent or permission.

What Is Trespassing?

You commit a criminal trespass whenever you:

  • enter onto property which you know you do not have the right to enter, or
  • remain on property after learning you do not have the right to be there.

Both require some form of criminal intent. In the first instance, the person has notice that entry is prohibited, whether it's by a verbal warning or posted signs, but enters anyway. An example of the second form of trespassing might occur if you enter someone's property with permission but refuse to leave after the owner orders you to go. For example, a house guest who refuses to leave is trespassing.

You don't have to receive a verbal warning that the property is off limits. Posted signs indicating no trespassing or no public access are often used to give notice to potential trespassers.

Can You Trespass on Public Property?

Yes, trespassing can occur on both private and public property. The status of being public property doesn't give the public the authority to access the property however they want. For instance, the public doesn't have a right to enter all areas of a government building. Like private buildings, certain areas—like employee break rooms or offices—can be restricted. Other public properties may be entirely closed to the public, such as electric power transformers.

Can You Trespass on Private Property Open to the Public?

Yes, a person can also trespass on private property that's open to the public. For example, a customer who enters a store during business hours but refuses to leave at closing time is trespassing. Trespassing might also occur in this situation if you're lawfully in an area open to the public (like a store showroom), but you decide to go into a room with signage indicating it's a private area (such as a storage room).

How Are Trespassing Crimes Classified?

Many states have laws that differentiate between different types or severities of trespassing. Most start with misdemeanor penalties that may increase to low-level felonies.

Some states impose penalties based on the type of property involved. For instance, trespassing on land generally carries less severe penalties than trespassing in someone's home. Other common property distinctions include businesses, agricultural land, cemeteries, schools, government buildings, construction sites, and wildlife or marine life areas.

Also, a law may impose harsher penalties for trespassing onto vulnerable sites. For example, state laws may provide more protection (in the form of tougher penalties) for trespassing on areas cordoned off by emergency workers or police, areas or structures supporting critical infrastructure needs (such as water treatment plants or cell towers), or facilities that house battered women's shelters or abortion clinics.

What Are the Penalties for Trespassing?

A person convicted of criminal trespass faces a range of penalties. In most criminal trespass situations courts do not impose significant jail penalties, fines, or lengthy probation periods, though the potential penalties differ among states. Some trespassing charges may qualify for diversion or sentencing alternatives, such as doing community service.

Misdemeanor Penalties for Trespassing

Most trespassing crimes are misdemeanor-level offenses. Misdemeanors typically carry a maximum sentence of one year in jail and fines.

Jail. While state laws allow judges the ability to impose a jail sentence for trespassing, convictions that result in jail time are uncommon. The potential jail sentences for most trespassing convictions range from several days to several months in jail. More serious offenses could result in jail sentences closer to a year.

Fines. A person convicted of trespassing most often faces a fine as a penalty. Fines can be imposed either separately from or in addition to jail sentences. Trespassing fines vary widely, from a few hundred dollars to as much as $5,000 or more. Like jail sentences, trespassing fines are dependent on state law and the circumstances of the crime, and laws allow courts to impose a range of fines. For example, a conviction for trespassing may result in a fine of as little as $25 or as much as $1,000.

Probation. Someone convicted of criminal trespassing may also have to serve a period of probation. Probation periods typically last less than one year, though they can be longer. When you are sentenced to probation you must comply with various probation conditions, such as not breaking any more laws and paying all fines and court costs. If you violate any of these conditions, a court can impose additional penalties, such as lengthening the probation period or ordering you to serve time in jail. Probation is typically supervised or unsupervised.

Felony Penalties for Trespassing

In certain cases, you could face felony penalties. States generally reserve felony penalties for the most serious trespass cases, such as where's there a risk of harm to others. These instances might include trespassing in an occupied home, onto critical infrastructure, or into an area where emergency personnel are working.

Felony penalties in trespassing cases are typically low-level offenses, involving a maximum of a few years in prison. Unless the person is a repeat offender or the crime resulted in serious harm, the person will likely not see prison time. Instead, they might face time in jail and probation.

Speaking With an Attorney

Even though trespassing is not usually a serious offense, you still need to speak to a local criminal defense lawyer if you are charged with a crime. A local defense attorney will have experience with local prosecutors and judges and can give you advice based both on the facts of your case and on their experience with the local criminal justice system. Being convicted of trespassing can result not only in fines, jail, or probation but will also saddle you with a criminal record that will follow you for the rest of your life.

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