A reader who was told that posting his property with “No Trespassing” signs is insufficient to warn trespassers that they are unwelcome and may be violating state law wants to know if there are other measures he must take to meet warning requirements.
Specifically, he asks if there is a law that requires him to send registered letters to trespassers warning them that they are violating the law by entering his property and may face criminal prosecution. The reader reports being advised by a law enforcement professional that no action can be taken to enforce a trespassing law unless the landowner first notifies the trespasser that he is in violation by registered letter.
Wrong. Unless a local municipality has adopted an ordinance requiring landowners to send registered letters to trespassers before state law can be enforced, the requirement does not exist in Maryland law. And even if a municipality had such a law, there would be questions about its validity and enforceability.
Maryland law provides that if you post a clearly visible sign on your property that says something like “No Trespassing Private Property” or “No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted,” you have met state law requirements that the owner or his agent must notify persons not to enter the property.
The next question: once legal notice requirements have been met, how does enforcement proceed?
Statutes aside, as a purely practical matter, a landowner may know that someone has set up an informal camp in a wooded section of his property and there is evidence the camp is being used. He may be able to catch the camper enjoying the site and warn him that the woods is privately owned and he is violating the law. Or he may not want to take the risk of being attacked by a trespasser, and would like police to handle it.
But even if notice were a requirement of the law, if the property owner does not know a trespasser’s name or address, how would he send a registered letter?
Where the property is in city or town limits, the landowner can turn to local police for enforcement of the Maryland criminal law that defines trespassing as a crime against property. Outside municipal boundaries, enforcement is handled by the county sheriff’s department.
In our example, the landowner is a victim of the crime. He may be required to go to court and testify against the person accused of violating the trespassing law, but he is not required to handle enforcement by removing the trespasser from his property.
A landowner who wants the trespasser to face charges in court should tell the police officer or sheriff’s deputy that he would like to press criminal charges. A landowner who makes that request should understand that he is agreeing to come to court, because his testimony will be needed to show that the trespasser was on the property without permission.
If convicted, the trespasser faces a maximum possible penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.