The Saratoga Sun -

Trespassing laws tightened


Recently, a Legislative Act was passed in the Wyoming State Legislature that has been featured in the national press — relating to a tougher stance for citizens trespassing while collecting data — whether knowingly or unknowingly.

The legislation set stauncher punishment for the public that “enters onto open land for the purpose of collecting resource data.”

“Open land”, according to the legislation, “means land outside the exterior boundaries of any incorporated city, town, subdivision.”

The definition of “collect” in the legislation, “means to take a sample of material, acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form for open land which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.”

According to Jerry Paxton, Wyoming State Representative, this law is geared towards protecting citizen’s property rights — especially those who make a living off their property.

“There are some groups out there with rather nefarious intent when they go out to gather that data. So we have groups of people that just go out looking for reasons to come down on people because of the practices that they pursue in the course of trying to make a living in agriculture,” said Paxton.

Although there may be some that unknowingly enter the property, Paxton thinks that there is a specific type of group that is of concern.

“We’ve got those extremist organizations that have an agenda that they are trying to pursue and they trespass,” Paxton stated. “As long as citizens go through the proper channels and have permission to collect the data, then there is nothing wrong with doing so.”

One of these organizations that have been in the epicenter of this controversy is the Western Watershed Project (WWP), an environmental group based out of Hailey, Idaho, has been mentioned in articles including the Washington Post and Slate expressing their concerns about the legislation. They also have a pending lawsuit filed against them from various ranchers in Wyoming for trespassing—although, at this time, the WWP is confident it will be dismissed, according to a recent WWP press website posting. A motion for dismissal was filed in December of 2011.

Included within a sub-heading on the WWP mission statement web page was that they “regularly employ field monitors to identify damaged watersheds and document abusive land-management practices.”

In addition, it is mentioned on their website that the “WWP provides oversight and monitoring to ensure the proper management of public lands and restores degraded landscapes to native, wild, functional and resilient ecosystems.”

The problem that many see with organizations such as the WWP is that they have no right to be on the land. They are trespassing.

Sen. Larry Hicks, sees this as a direct violation of sacrosanct property rights. “People are out there with no authority whatsoever and are using that for nefarious purposes,” Hicks said. They could come onto your property and collect data—and if they were asked to leave, they could just leave with all of the data.”

Although the law was passed in the legislature, there were some who were not in support of the bill. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, said he supported the bills intention, however, decided to vote against it due to a few defining features of the bill that were to vague and ambiguous—if it was better written, he might have considered voting for it.

“That law was more or less already in place, they kind of wanted stricter penalties but it wasn’t all that bad in concept. The problem was it wasn’t drafted very well and it left some ambiguity between two crimes that were created one was the collection of data the other was trespassing to collect data.”

The two points where Rothfuss found were the issues with the bill were that clarification was needed on the meaning of open land and the idea that citizens who are ‘unknowingly’ trespassing would still be prosecuted.

“One of them (the clauses) specifically says private open lands; the other one just says open lands. So that ambiguity would lead a court to probably think that in one instance it has to be private but in the other instance the law would apply to public open lands which create some difficulties if that’s the way it ends up being interpreted.”

In addition, the Wyoming legislature took the stance with the bill that if you are collecting data, you should (or would) know that you are trespassing.

“So you can have a graduate student for example, without a GPS taking some pictures for a publication and end up committing a crime without knowing they are committing a crime under this new statute regardless of the interpretation.”

A major argument against that idea is, how it is to be determined whether they were ‘knowingly’ trespassing or not? Rothfuss thinks that’s why we have our judicial system set up the way it is.

“That is certainly the argument, but that’s how we have done trespassing forever, because we tend to air on the side of­—you have to prove a prosecutable case instead of having to prove your innocence. But the Wyoming legislature decided it was so very important that we would go against all of the other historical precedence and start a new one.”

There are some real penalties with this precedence, with first time offenders may be fined up to $1,000 with a maximum of 1 year in prison and second-time offenders a minimum of up to $5,000 with a minimum sentence of 10 days and a maximum of one year.


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