Legal Matters: Signs, verbal warnings sufficient notice to trespassers

Summer is the season for fun in parks and on beaches. But leave it to lawyers to go for a stroll in the woods and think about trespass issues.

In Maryland, 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.


What if the sign says only, "Keep Out!"? It would probably still meet the legal requirements for notice not to enter the property. State law does not require private property owners to use the words "trespass" or "private property."

Anyone who enters the property in defiance of your notice may face misdemeanor charges if the signs or other markings prohibiting entry — a notice painted on a tree or post is good enough — have been placed where they could reasonably be seen. Violators may be fined up to $500 and/or given a 90-day jail term for a first offense.

Trespass includes off-road vehicles. Anyone riding an off-road vehicle on someone else's private property is committing a misdemeanor unless he has written permission from the owner.

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Off-road vehicle riders also face misdemeanor charges for riding on property they know is state, county or town-owned or leased. The charges do not apply to areas designated for off-road vehicles.

Owners of public property also have the right to restrict access. Who owns public property? Ultimately, we the public are the collective owners, but that does not mean we can just start using it. The White House is public property, but don't plan a cookout on the lawn.

Black's Law Dictionary defines public property as, "state-owned or community-owned property not restricted to any one individual's use or possession." That means government regulators can restrict access or allow entry only under certain conditions.

A verbal notice to stay off private property is effective indefinitely, but the rules are different for public property. On public property, a person who does not have lawful business there must leave if ordered to do so by a guard or other government official. But the verbal notice is effective only for the occasion. The visitor barred today can come back tomorrow.

The Maryland Court of Appeals cleared up the duration of a verbal notice in a 1999 case. A man arrested on public property and charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance argued that police had no right to arrest him for trespassing — drugs were found during a police search after the arrest — because a notice to stay off the property given to him two years earlier was no longer effective. The court agreed. It held the notice effective only for the occasion when it was issued.

Some Carroll town governments have made trespass on public property a municipal infraction. In Mount Airy, for example, a person refusing, failing to leave or entering public property during hours specified that the property is not open to public use can be fined $25 for the first offense and $50 for each repeat offense.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.