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Can You Press Charges if Someone Trespasses?

Updated March 28, 2017

The act of trespassing can be a criminal offence. A property owner may file a police complaint and request criminal prosecution of a trespasser. This process is referred to as pressing charges. The prosecuting attorney, not the property owner, makes the final decision on whether criminal charges are pursued. Each state has its own set of trespassing laws. Penalties and fines vary depending on the jurisdiction and facts involved. Exceptions and defences to criminal trespassing also exist.

Identifying Actionable Trespassing

An intentional, uninvited entry onto property must occur before a party can press charges for trespassing. Parties who innocently enter onto property must leave upon being informed they are trespassing. The existence of "No Trespassing" signs can be used in court as evidence a trespasser should have known he was wrongfully entering property. A trespasser does not need to cause property damage to be criminally charged. However, destruction of property can result in stiffer penalties. First time trespassers, non-violent trespassers or trespassers who do not have criminal histories are frequently shown leniency.

Penalties for Trespassing

A property owner pressing charges for trespass exposes an alleged perpetrator to a wide range of penalties. Most trespassing offences are classified as criminal misdemeanours. Misdemeanours carry modest fines and short-term incarceration. Felonies are more serious crimes. Parties facing felony charges are at risk for heavy fines and significant jail sentences. Trespassing can be considered a felony in certain circumstances. For example, a trespass involving the use of a firearm can carry felony charges.

Defenses and Exceptions to Trepassing

A party pressing charges for trespassing must be prepared to cooperate with a prosecutor in rebutting the trespasser's legal defences. Prosecutors must prove each element of a trespassing statute to secure a criminal conviction. For example, a statute may require a landowner demand a trespasser leave. A trespasser may raise the defence he was never told to exit. A party should also consider any exceptions to trespassing before pressing charges. For instance, a party may be legally excused if her trespassing resulted from an emergency.

State Trespass Laws Vary

State laws covering criminal acts of trespassing differ. A person seeking to press charges against an alleged trespasser should direct specific questions to his police department or prosecutor's office.

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About the Author

Maggie Lourdes is a full-time attorney in southeast Michigan. She teaches law at Cleary University in Ann Arbor and online for National University in San Diego. Her writing has been featured in "Realtor Magazine," the N.Y. State Bar's "Health Law Journal," "Oakland County Legal News," "Michigan Probate & Estate Planning Journal," "Eye Spy Magazine" and "Surplus Today" magazine.