Is Trespassing Actually a Felony?

Most folks don’t think of trespassing as a felony. Most folks barely think of trespassing as a “serious” crime at all, but the opposite is actually true.

Depending on the circumstances and the intentions of the trespasser, trespassing might actually be charged as a crime with substantial financial penalties attached to it and also lengthy terms of imprisonment.

trespassing sing on fence

Pretty serious indeed! But is trespassing actually a felony?

Depending on the state and the circumstances trespassing may be a felony if someone trespasses repeatedly, with the intention to commit another crime, or in a sensitive or restricted area or installation.

In most states, there is at least one way to get slapped with a felony charge for trespassing.

It might be contextual, it might be because of repeated violations, or maybe because the act of trespassing itself was especially egregious for one reason or another.

Whatever the case, the trespasser might be facing five to six-figure fines and years in jail or prison. If you want to know more about felony charges concerning trespassing, keep reading.

Most Trespassing Charges are Infractions or Misdemeanors

To keep everything clear, it is true that the vast majority of trespassing charges, no matter what state you happen to be in, are relatively minor as far as crimes go.

Most are charged as misdemeanors, but a few are just infractions.

Misdemeanors can be serious, and depending on the place and how bad the incident was, you might be facing a fine of several thousand dollars and up to a year in jail, but even then it’s rarely both and most often a fine.

After jail, or even if someone avoids going to jail, probation is common.

Infractions are even lesser crimes, typically punishable by a fine only and usually a small one at that.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that trespassing is legal for a fee, and infraction-level charges are typically reserved only for the most innocuous instances, typically someone trespassing on unfenced and unposted vacant land, for instance.

Trespassing Charges Vary Significantly from State to State

This is really the chief factor when it comes to charging trespassing: each and every state is a little bit different, though most of the legal concepts are more or less consistent from place to place.

Some states, like Colorado, tend to be very harsh on trespassing by comparison.

Other states with lots of wide open, vacant land, like Nevada and Utah, tended to be more lenient on trespassing so long as someone is only trespassing on unimproved property that isn’t posted.

Accordingly, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with your state’s laws on trespassing both so you don’t accidentally run afoul of them in your travels, and also so you understand exactly what your rights are and what the severity of the violation is should someone else trespass on your property.

It also helps you set up a better defensive plan as a property owner, because if you want to smack someone with serious trespassing charges as a deterrent against future behavior, you might need to post signage, put up fencing, or do something else of that nature.

Even Misdemeanor Trespassing Can Still Be a Serious Crime

None of this is to say that you should breathe a sigh of relief if the typical trespassing charge in your state is just a misdemeanor.

A misdemeanor charge might still entail a fine of $5,000, sometimes more, and up to one whole year in jail, with a long probation afterward that might be supervised.

This is not an insignificant crime, or punishment, and it will affect your life going forward.

Similarly, you shouldn’t shrug your shoulders over a trespasser who is flagrantly violating your rights because all they might be facing down is a simple misdemeanor.

If the judge drops the hammer on a person like that, you might not be dealing with them for some time, and they could even owe you significant restitution!

Trespassing in a Residential Property Might Be a Felony

Where things usually get extra serious concerning trespassing charges, we’re talking felony level, is when you trespass into a dwelling, a residential property, or some other habitation.

Now, this is a nuanced subject, because what’s the difference between trespassing into someone’s home, and burglarizing it or invading it?

That will vary significantly from state to state, and the defining line can be quite thin indeed if indeed there is any such charge for residential trespassing extant.

Similarly, trespassing onto residential grounds, meaning the curtilage, the yard or surrounds, that is fenced or otherwise enclosed might be enough to net you a felony charge.

There are lots of variations to this, and I could go on but just make it a point to check your state laws on the matter.

Felony Trespass Charges May Result from Aggravated Behavior

Similarly, trespassing might only be a misdemeanor but the reason why the person is stress passing, or what they are doing that facilitates or occurs after the trespass, can escalate charges to the felony level.

For instance, if it can be proven that someone is trespassing in furtherance of committing some other crime on the property, such as vandalism, they might be facing a felony charge.

Similarly if someone defaces or damages any property in order to trespass that alone could get them hit with more severe charges.

Obviously, the trespassing charge, even a felony charge, might be the least of someone’s worries if it can be proven they were committing or about to commit some other, far more heinous act.

Repeat Offenders Might Get Hit with Felony Charges

Something else that repeat offenders will have to contend with is escalating charges.

Even if someone is committing a lesser type of trespassing, doing it over and over again, or generally committing a successive number of trespasses, of any kind, will result in more and more severe penalties.

In many states, generally someone is looking at felony charges or at least the most severe of misdemeanors after just three or four incidents.

Although this is hardly a concern for most law-abiding citizens, it is still something to keep in mind if you’re dealing with a tricky access situation for your property involving a belligerent and tyrannical neighbor.

Think of it sort of like a three-strikes law, but for trespassing!

Trespassing in Sensitive or Restricted Areas is Usually Felonious Behavior

One of the most severe and typically the most harshly punished types of trespassing out there is trespassing in a restricted area, or in a sensitive area.

There are many such types of properties, both public and private, and when I say public I mean owned by the government.

For instance, if you trespass in a power facility, critical infrastructure installation like a port, rail yard, mass transit hub, restricted area at an airport, etc., then you can expect to be hit with felony charges straight away. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Also, it might be something seemingly innocuous, like trespassing on a railway.

Did you ever walk down the railroad tracks when you were a kid? If you did, or rather if you do that now, you could actually be facing some severe trespassing penalties!

In a similar vein, trespassing in any area that has been declared off-limits due to emergency or some other crisis, even if it’s normally accessible and not considered trespassing, could get you slapped with a very serious felony charge.

If police, fireman or any other state agents are carrying out their lawful duties inside of perimeter and you violate that perimeter then that might be the end of the line for you!

Wanton Trespass May Also Result in Felony Charges

Wanton trespass may be a felony charge depending on the specifics of the state statutes in your home state.

Generally, wanton trespass occurs when someone knows that they shouldn’t be trespassing, or have been directly notified that they cannot trespass, and then go ahead and trespass anyway.

For instance, if someone gets caught where they shouldn’t be and is told to leave, and they refuse to leave, they could get hit with this one.

Similarly, someone that refuses to leave any business or other place that is normally open to them and accessible, but is either closed or they have had their access revoked, that’s wanton trespass.

Similarly, a few states take a very dim view of anyone who trespasses on land that is properly posted with signage, fencing or both and they trespass in defiance of said notices or barriers.

Basically if the property is following the law when it comes to keeping unwanted visitors out, and someone ignores that, they might jump straight to the top of the penalty schedule.

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