Updated: Jul 23, 2020
By Sarah Everhart
Unfortunately, unwelcome visitors either on foot or on all-terrain vehicles are not an atypical sight on many Maryland farms. But when has an unwelcome visitor committed trespass and when can that person be held responsible for crop damage? How can trespassers on farmland be discouraged?
A trespasser is someone who enters the land of another, either knowingly or unknowingly, without consent of the landowner and interferes with the landowner’s possession of the land. There are two types of trespass in Maryland: civil trespass and criminal trespass.
A civil trespass occurs when a civil lawsuit is brought against a trespasser and a court finds the trespasser was on property without consent. Why would a landowner seek a civil trespass judgment as opposed to filing charges for criminal trespass? A suit for civil trespass, if successful, can result in the landowner being awarded a judgment for monetary damages to redress an injury caused by the trespasser such as crop damage. Every unauthorized entry on the land of another is technically a trespass, but typically a landowner is not going to initiate a lawsuit for trespass without an injury which needs to be redressed with a damages verdict. A judgment for civil trespass is just that: a civil judgment with no criminal record created.
Alternatively, if a trespasser enters farmland without permission of the owner, the landowner can file criminal trespass charges with the local District Court Commissioner’s Office and the case will be handled by the State’s Attorney’s Office. Maryland has three different types of criminal trespass which can affect an agricultural operation:
1. Trespass on posted property. A person may not enter property conspicuously posted against trespass by either “No Trespassing” signs or paint marks which meet the Department of Natural Resources regulations (explained below). The penalty for trespass on posted property is a misdemeanor for the first violation, imprisonment not exceeding 90 days, or a fine not exceeding $500, or both. A second violation occurring with 2 years of the first violation can result in imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both, and for each subsequent violation occurring within 2 years after the preceding violation, imprisonment not exceeding 1 year, or a fine not exceeding $2,500 or both.
2. Wanton trespass on private property. A person may not enter or cross private property, after being notified by the landowner or the landowner’s agent not to do so. The penalties for this type of trespass are similar to what is described for trespass on posted property.
3. Wanton entry on cultivated land. A person may not enter cultivated land of another without consent. Cultivated land is defined as land cleared of its natural vegetation and currently planted with a crop or orchard. The penalty for wanton entry on cultivated land is a misdemeanor and imprisonment not exceeding 90 days or a fine not exceeding $500, or both. This provision of the law doesn’t apply to a service person entering cultivated land or a person entering cultivated land under color of law or with the legal right to enter such as a government inspector.
A landowner seeking criminal charges and wishing to be compensated for crop damage caused by a trespasser can ask the District Court judge for an order of restitution, which would require the trespasser to compensate the landowner for the damage.
The best way to discourage trespassers is to make sure that farmlands are well marked with either “No Trespassing” signs or paint marks at each road entrance, all property adjacent to public roadways, public waterways, and land adjoining neighboring properties. In order to comply with State law, the paint marks must be bright blue oil-based paint and consist of a vertical line at least 2 inches in width and 8 inches in length, and centered at least 3 feet but not more than 6 feet from the ground. Clearly marking farmlands not only serves to discourage potential trespassers, but as previously explained will significantly strengthen any trespass case brought by a landowner. ALEI has previously posted on the best way to hang “No Trespassing” signs: see http://www.aglaw.umd.edu/blog/frequently-asked-questions-hanging-no-trespassing-signs?rq=trespass