POCATELLO –Idaho lawmakers today passed a common-sense bill that strengthens the protection of private property rights by amending the state’s various and often confusing and inconsistent trespass laws and consolidating them.
House lawmakers voted 51-18 to support House Bill 658, which passed the Senate by a 29-6 vote.
Those votes were taken after several public hearings that stretched on for hours, where dozens of farmers, ranchers, and other landowners provided examples of how trespassers have damaged or destroyed expensive equipment, drove through freshly planted fields, used corrals for firewood, cut down their fences and harassed and even shot livestock.
Together, the testimony painted a shocking picture of how trespassers have caused serious damage to private land, equipment, and livestock.
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle, a farmer from Shelley, was one of those who testified about the headaches and damage trespassers have caused his operation over the years.
Searle said most private landowners are quick to grant permission to hunt, fish or recreate on their property if asked permission first.
“Farm Bureau members and other landowners across the state are grateful that legislators understand how vitally important it is to uphold constitutionally guaranteed private property rights,” Searle said after the House passed the bill, which now goes to Gov. Butch Otter for his signature.
Searle said that HB 658 “will ensure that we continue to foster a cooperative culture between landowners and those who ask for permission to recreate on private lands.”
HB 658 provides tougher penalties for people who willfully and knowingly trespass on private land. The key point here is that the new law is not going to result in Girl Scouts, missionaries or other innocent people becoming criminals because they accidentally stepped foot on private land, a claim often repeated by opponents of the bill.
The legislation does not criminalize innocent behavior. In order to commit a criminal trespass, the person must “know or have reason to know” they are trespassing.
People who testified in favor of the bill made it clear that those who trespass willfully are a small minority. But under current law, the penalty for trespassing isn’t sufficient to deter them or inspire law enforcement to pursue trespassing cases. As of today, someone found guilty of trespassing on private ground faces a $50 fine.
Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1 when signed by the governor, someone convicted of willful criminal trespass faces a minimum $300 fine for a first conviction, $1,500 for a second conviction and $5,000 for a third conviction. A person with a third conviction could face a felony charge if there is more than $1,000 worth of damage involved with the trespass.
It should be noted that during public testimony, no one complained about the stiffer penalties for trespassing. It should also be noted that most of the criticisms leveled at the bill are longstanding provisions within existing law.
Contrary to what some opponents said about the bill, it does not eliminate landowners’ posting requirements. In fact, it increases them.
Under current law, neither fenced land nor cultivated land needs to be posted. HB 658 requires landowners to post all unfenced and uncultivated property, as well as fenced land that is adjacent to public land at the corners and boundaries where the property intersects navigable streams, roads, gates, and rights-of-way. The property must also be posted so that a reasonable person would be put on notice that they are entering private land.
That is a higher posting standard than current law requires.
The bottom line is that a coalition of 34 farms, forestry, industry, business, retail and other groups supported the legislation, and while some sportsmen’s groups opposed it, others did not, nor did the Idaho Department of Fish and Game oppose the bill.
Organizations representing tens of thousands of Idahoans collectively told lawmakers there was a problem with the state’s current and confusing trespass codes and dozens of private landowners showed up at the Capitol to provide specific examples of why that’s the case.
The result is a new, consolidated trespass code that has been simplified so that it is more understandable by the public and strengthens the protection of private property, which is one of the most basic of human rights that helps guarantee individual freedom.