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Legal Matters: Does a homeowner have recourse if debris is thrown on his property?

Your neighbor regularly throws dirt and brush onto your yard. You have proof he is the offender because your surveillance camera has captured him in the practice. You asked him to stop using your yard as a disposal for his unwanted debris, but he simply ignores you and continues the practice.

First question: Is it legal for your neighbor to toss items onto your property, so long as he does not set foot on your land?

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No. He is trespassing by throwing dirt and debris that invades your property, although he did not physically enter the land. Maryland recognizes a common law — that is, not written into the state code — trespassing violation.

Trespassing where someone physically invades your property is a criminal offense, which means local law enforcement may become involved. Trespassing where someone causes harm in some other way, such as throwing items onto your property, is a civil offense. That means police cannot enforce the violation in the way they would enforce a crime.

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In a 1958 trespassing case, the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote, “The State concedes that at common law a trespass to private property is not a crime unless it is accompanied by, or tends to create, a breach of the peace, although the owner may have a civil action for trespass.”

The court’s decision recognized that an action taken without the property owner’s consent that interferes with his possessory interest in his property is a tort. A tort is not a crime, but it is a civil wrong that causes someone to suffer loss or harm. Torts can include negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, injuries and invasion of privacy, for example.

The state’s highest court defined trespass in a 2019 ruling as, “a physical act or force against an individual's property executed without the property owner's consent; which interferes with a possessory interest in that property.”

The court went on to say that trespass in Maryland can occur even if the property owner suffered no damages. That means the property owner whose yard is the target of his neighbor’s dumping will not be required to prove that he suffered damages such as having to pay to have the brush hauled away or to reseed damaged sections of lawn.

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But the property owner is left with the question of how he is going to get the neighbor to stop disposing of rubbish in his yard.

If the issue involved a contract, the property owner might be required to exhaust administrative remedies before turning to courts by filing suit. But no contract is known to exist in this case, and unless the owner lives in a municipality that has an ordinance prohibiting dumping rubbish on another person’s property, there is apparently no administrative remedy open to him.

If there is no available administrative course of action, the owner who is the target of the rubbish dumping may have to file suit for trespass as a civil offense.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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