SHERIDAN — Local law enforcement officials and land owners have supported a legislative proposal to make Wyoming’s trespassing laws more stringent.
Currently, trespass laws require that law enforcement prove someone knowingly trespassed on private property to prosecute them.
Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said proving intent is often difficult in trespass cases, which has led his office to drop several cases that otherwise appeared to be bad-faith trespassing violations.
“Almost everyone that’s trespassing in the investigations that the sheriff’s office do, we have to prove that they went by a sign and that it was reasonably likely that they would see that sign (warning them they were moving onto private property),” Thompson said.
If law enforcement cannot prove that someone ignored warnings before trespassing, it can only issue a warning to first-time offenders. That gives trespassers a lot of leeway in excusing their crime. For instance, if someone is caught trespassing at night, they can tell law enforcement it was too dark for them to see private property signs and get off with a warning.
Wyoming’s public and private lands often interlock in complicated ways, however, and opponents of the law change have pointed out that it would make it easy to prosecute recreationists who get lost or inadvertently travel through private property.
Lawmakers on the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee discussed including mitigating provisions into trespassing laws when they considered the change at an interim meeting earlier this month. For example, protections for people who trespass because they are given bad directions — either by a person or a GPS — or trespass to protect their safety.
Jill Morrison, the executive director of the Sheridan-based landowners group the Powder River Basin Resource Council, spoke in favor of the law change at the judiciary meeting. She told lawmakers that some of the landowners she represents have had difficulties keeping surveyors and data collectors off their property because of how difficult it is currently to prosecute trespassers.
Morrison further said that some of the mitigating protections the committee was discussing would still create difficulties in enforcing the law. Getting bad directions, she noted, can be the result of negligence and could give bad actors a convenient excuse to avoid prosecution. Morrison suggested requiring someone have written authorization to be on private property.
The Judiciary Committee ultimately voted to draft a bill, with only Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, opposed.
But as the issue moves forward, it may face philosophical objections from some citizens and lawmakers.
The change would essentially give law enforcement officers more power to issue trespassing charges, though, and Thompson said while he is confident his office would use common sense in wielding that power, he understands why the prospect of removing legal requirements and relying on the discretion of law enforcement in assessing trespassing violations makes some citizens and lawmakers uncomfortable.
“I’m under this impression that nowhere will law enforcement or county attorneys abuse this power because we look at it from a common sense approach,” Thompson said. “But, of course, that’s just based on my experience in Sheridan County and the way we operate. I understand that the Legislature needs to come up with a balance so (the law) can’t be abused by law enforcement, can’t be abused by property owners and that it can’t be abused by trespassers.”
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold two more interim meetings — in Casper in August and in Cheyenne in October.