Many people don’t think twice when they see a “No Trespassing” sign on an old fence or out in the middle of nowhere. Trespassing does not really seem to be a crime that people think much about because no one is hurt and no property is actually damaged.

As a result, a trespassing charge can come as a surprise to first-time offenders. If you’ve been caught trespassing or have been accused of or charged with trespassing, here’s what you need to know about this crime.

Understanding Trespassing

In simple terms, trespassing is when you enter private property without invitation. However, this definition can be extended to include:

  • Going onto public property after hours. For example, some gated parks, swimming pools and other community spaces close at certain times. Entering these places after hours would be trespassing.
  • Refusing to leave after being asked. If you attend a party but refuse to leave after it’s over, the owner of the property has the right to call the police to remove you from the situation.
  • Trespassing in order to commit a larger crime. For example, if you enter a property with the intention of toilet papering it, you would be charged with both vandalism and trespassing, not just vandalism. Many people do not realize that trespassing will also be part of the charges when they’ve committed a more serious crime.

Contrary to what you might believe, if it is clear the property does not belong to you, you can be charged with trespassing even if there is no sign preventing trespassers. But if there is no clear marker indicating private property, like a house, fence or sign, you would have to damage the property for a trespassing charge to stand.

Understanding Arrest and Charges

Police can arrest you at their discretion if they find you or see you entering a place where you are not allowed to go. Many police will issue a warning if you’ve never had any record of trespassing or if your intentions were completely benign (no mischief, hazing or drinking). However, private property owners have the right to press charges for trespass, and police must oblige.

Just because you are charged and arrested does not mean that you will spend time in prison. In general, trespassing is a minor crime and does not warrant harsh sentencing. First-time trespassers might end up with community service hours or a small fine. In addition to mandated fines, you will also be responsible to pay court costs.

Some fines are larger than others depending on the circumstances of the crime itself. For example, if you were charged with trespassing for taking a short cut across someone’s unfenced property, the fine may be small. If you climbed over the fence of a dangerous construction site after hours, this would be more serious.

You might even receive no fines based on “time served,” which means you are released with the time you spent in custody directly after your arrest as your only punishment. If you do get any jail time, it would be matter of days or weeks in normal cases.

However, there are three circumstances that can make a trespassing charge more severe:

  1. Committing a serious crime after trespassing. Entering with the intention of stealing, destroying property, assaulting another person or kidnapping would result in much greater penalties for the trespass in addition to the penalties for the more serious crime.
  2. Trespassing over and over again. The point of penalties is to discourage a person from committing the same crime in the future. Community service or small fines are light penalties. If you demonstrate that they were not suitable in ridding you of the inclination to trespass, you could see jail time for repeat offenses.
  3. Trespassing on secure or protected government property, especially if you can be linked to a threat or to terrorism.

If you are arrested, you should not speak to anyone until you have a lawyer to represent you.

Fighting the Charges

Many people are arrested and charged with trespassing when they have an excellent defense or are not guilty at all. For example, you might enter a property to pick up an intoxicated roommate who won’t leave a party. While you’re struggling to get your roommate out of the house, the owner could call the police to arrest you both.

You have a reasonable defense: you were trying to remove your roommate from the house and get him or her to a safe place. You were not refusing to leave or trying to make trouble. Since trespassing can stay on your record for employment and government background checks, it’s important to fight the charge with a lawyer if you are truly innocent.

If you are not innocent, you still need the help of a criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer helps to negotiate your penalties so you serve fewer community service days or have a smaller fine. Your lawyer can also help you get shorter probation for trespassing, especially if the nature of the crime was more severe.

For more information about trespassing crimes, contact Mesenbourg & Sarratori Law Offices. We can help you get the answers and help you need to make the best out of your situation.