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Trespassing 101 

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The West has long been characterized as a place with wide-open spaces. The “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain” does not refer to the East Coast. Many of us delight in getting off the beaten path — standing on a mountain, ridge line, hill or even in a field and surveying the landscape for miles. Some seek rejuvenation from nature away from the noise, congestion and confusion of incorporated areas; for them, even population centers take on a pleasant aspect when viewed from a distance. But as the population continues its upward trend and more housing springs up, fencing delineating individual space crisscrosses these once open thoroughfares.

Barbed wire fencing was the definitive border choice in the 1800s. It was reasonably cheap and, more importantly, separated cows from crops. Wooden fencing, high tensile wire, electrical tape and even hedgerows are now thrown into the mix. Large landowners continue to erect fences, now not so much to keep animals in and people out but to define their space and that of their neighbors.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 to manage and expand government-owned reserves, and he created a number of parks and preserves. To modern-day wanderers, though, these places are not enough. Feet stray from sidewalks and onto private property, accidentally or intentionally.

In Humboldt County it is easy to reach areas that are out of sight of roads, structures and power lines, places where you can hear the downwash from a raven or a helicopter overhead. Though man and nature have changed the landscape, much of this area remains as in the long-ago days when Native Americans were the only people here; a wild place of free-flowing streams, a wide assortment of plants and trees and wandering wildlife that most people only see on PBS’s Nature , or at zoos. Yet Bureau of Land Management land and federal and state parks inevitably border private property.

So what constitutes trespass? California Penal Code section 602 defines trespass on private lands and the consequences. Many people wrongly assume that if an individual steps foot onto another’s private property they are in trespass. However, as Sheriff E. Stewart of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office recently explained, according to the code once a person enters an open space he must be given the opportunity to leave. If he refuses, that’s when it’s considered a trespass violation. However, if an uninvited visitor takes things off the property, damages items on the property, builds a fire or discharges a firearm, to mention a few actions, she is trespassing and can be charged with a misdemeanor.

What’s the big deal? Well, to the landowner, open crossing over his property can result in establishment of a prescriptive easement or right of way. One couple granted neighbors permission to walk on their property for “exercise” to avoid this problem. Then, there is always the concern about injury and lawsuits.

There are steps the landowner can take to minimize confusion about trespass. First, go to the Law Library located at the courthouse and get access to Deering’s California Codes Annotated. Or go online at leginfo.ca.gov and read Penal Code 602. Second, the Sheriff’s office encourages posting property with “No Trespass” signs. Code 602 details posting requirements depending on circumstances; one subsection, 602.8, specifies that signs should be “displayed at intervals not less than three to the mile along exterior boundaries and at all roads and trails entering the lands.” If the area is posted it need not be fenced in.

Perhaps it is time that “An Etiquette Guide for Trespasser Candidates in Northern Humboldt County” is written. (Southern Humboldt, with its vast fields of illegal activity, no doubt has a different code; we won’t be the ones to write about that.)

The Northern Humboldt pamphlet would include some of the following guidelines. It seems to be standard practice to give your first name only when asked who you are. Don’t initiate a lengthy conversation with a landowner who is busy working on a project. Leave gates open or closed as you find them. Roll under wire fences or use stiles when provided; don’t climb on metal gates. Don’t take anything or alter the private space in any way — that includes beating back berry brambles to enhance your trail or borrowing a tool left unattended. Don’t run away unless there is a threat of bodily harm; the lotus position is disarming and charming. Offer food to the property’s dog only if the other alternative is your leg. If there is a residence on a remote, rural property, give it a wide berth; obviously the occupants want and enjoy privacy. It is taboo to ride horses on private property without permission. Don’t ride vehicles of any kind on private property without permission; this can be a misdemeanor, as spelled out in 602(n). Step over water bars (ditches on the road surface directing water off the road). Use your ears and steer clear of heavy equipment and timber harvest operations. Leave nothing and pick up trash (ok, extracting plastic from bear scat is a bit much). Do leave the property if asked to do so.

Perhaps most importantly: Remember, even if you’re not in Southern Humboldt, you’re still in Humboldt County. If you stumble across a marijuana garden, be cautious.

The consequences of trespass described in Penal Code 602.8 are a $75 fine for the first offense, a $250 fine for the second offense on the same or contiguous land of the same owner, and a misdemeanor for the third time. If you are a landowner confronting someone who refuses to leave your property, phone the Sheriff. Be careful around crazy landowners and “hikers” — you never know what they’ll do. If you are a walker who finds the prospect of someone entering your yard invasive, explore Humboldt County’s numerous parks and other public lands. But if you wind up on private property, abide by the guidelines above, act responsibly, use common sense and don’t loiter. That’s covered under another section of the penal code.

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Karen Sack

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