Private Property Rights Are The Cornerstone Of Liberty
Guest Editorial by Fred Birnbaum
During the 2018 legislative session, Idaho lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a property rights bill that clarifies, simplifies, and strengthens the state’s trespassing laws.
Some conservatives were concerned that the bill tilted too far in favor of landowners and neglected the interests of sportsman and outdoor enthusiasts. However, remember, only about 30 percent of Idaho is private land, the fourth lowest percentage among the 50 states.
Before addressing the passed bill’s particulars, it is important to note that the major objections to earlier versions of the bill were addressed in later drafts, yet many false claims persist. Rest assured, House Bill 658 does not criminalize innocent behavior and will not result in Girl Scouts, missionaries and door-to-door salesman becoming criminals.
For someone to be convicted of a criminal trespass under the new law, they must know or have reason to know they were trespassing. Further, oral permission to gain access to private land is retained as an option. Furthermore, the first offense is not a misdemeanor, rather it is an infraction.
The legislation will protect private property rights, a fundamental cornerstone of liberty. The new statutes balance the rights of landowners and the rights of the public and are a solid improvement upon the state’s previous trespassing laws because previously dispersed trespassing codes are simplified and consolidated so they are more easily found and understood by both parties.
Though HB 658, which goes into effect July 1, faced significant criticism, supporters of the bill believe that opposition was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the current law and the new legislation. Note, lawmakers approved it by a combined 80-24 vote.
Legislators made their decision after hearing from dozens of property owners, including many farmers and ranchers, who traveled to the Statehouse to describe the damage caused to their property by a small percentage of people who willfully trespass.
The landowners described how trespassers have continually driven through freshly planted fields, destroyed expensive farming equipment, cut down fences, used corrals for firewood, or harassed and even shot their livestock.
The problem with the state’s existing trespassing laws, they said: The laws had no teeth and were confusing and thus hard to enforce.
Under Idaho’s previous trespassing codes, someone guilty of criminal trespass, if convicted faced a $50 fine. That didn’t deter trespassers or give prosecutors reason to pursue a conviction.
Under the new statute, someone guilty of criminal trespass faces a minimum $300 fine for a first conviction, $1,500 for a second, and $5,000 for a third. Someone with a third conviction could face a felony charge if there is more than $1,000 worth of damage involved.
This felony provision is harmonious with current law when it comes to malicious damage to property. It is also reasonable.
Some opponents of HB 658 claimed it eliminated posting requirements. Actually, the legislation clarifies posting requirements.
The law requires posting unfenced, uncultivated land at property corners and where the property line intersects navigable streams, roads, gates, and rights-of-way. The law also requires that property be posted so that a reasonable person would know she is entering private land. The posting requirements are a higher standard than under current law.
House Bill 658 closes a loophole in existing law that could allow a trespasser to hang around in a property owner’s backyard—for example, while they are on vacation—until actually told to leave. In what free society is this acceptable?
The legislation was supported by a 34-group coalition that includes all of the state’s main farming groups as well as the utility industry, mining, business, industry, retailer, forestry, and recreation organizations.
In Idaho, private property owners and outdoorsmen have long enjoyed a great relationship. The trouble caused by trespassers is limited to a few people with woeful disregard for landowners’ fundamental property rights.
By clarifying the state’s trespassing laws and providing some teeth to deter trespassing, House Bill 658 should serve to improve the relationship between landowners and outdoorsmen.
Fred Birnbaum is the Vice President of the Idaho Freedom Foundation
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