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The Wyoming State Capitol Building on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in downtown Cheyenne. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – An effort to change the state’s trespass laws to punish violators even if they were unaware they were on private property failed to make it out of committee Thursday.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee voted 8-6 against supporting the proposed legislation, which would have removed language that trespass laws only apply when someone enters private property “knowingly” without permission.

The failed bill would instead have made any presence on private land, even if someone was unaware of property lines, a crime. It also would have increased the potential penalty from $750 to $1,000, but kept the potential of up to six months in jail.

The idea was heavily supported by several landowner groups, including the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Jim Magagna, the association’s executive vice president, said the bill was necessary to help enforce private land rights in the midst of growing tourism and outdoor recreation across the state.

Given that more and more people have access to land information and GPS through their smartphones, Magagna said there should be less reason for anyone to accidentally wander onto private property.

For that reason, Magagna said the state needed stricter rules around trespassing to punish those that aren’t making a good-faith effort to ensure they’re not using private property for their own personal use.

When presented with the example of a family out on a recreational vehicle that wanders onto private property, Magagna said he would expect a judge wouldn’t punish them severely. But he said they should be punished because they weren’t taking proactive steps and using all of the information available to them.

Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, said his membership also was in support of the bill. Removing intent from the law would allow law enforcement to deal with an incident of trespass without trying to adjudicate whether someone acted in error or with malice.

“Law enforcement welcomes the basic changes, the basic clarity,” Oedekoven said.

Committee members who voted against the bill saw it as an unnecessary change that would severely punish someone if they made a mistake about where they were located. While there might be issues with hunters or other recreators ignoring private property, those cases are already covered by the current law.

Judiciary Committee co-Chairwoman Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said the bill would criminalize a mistake of location and remove any notion of intent. Throughout the criminal code, law enforcement and the judiciary have to consider the intent of someone breaking the law, and Nethercott said it should be up to law enforcement to make those determinations.

Instead of removing intent from trespass, Nethercott said perhaps the better path was increasing fines and penalties associated with a second or third trespass offense, just as the state does with driving under the influence or domestic violence.

“It seems to me there’s a desire to enhance the penalties associated with the crime of trespass. So why wasn’t that considered,” Nethercott said. “Instead of maybe changing the underlying elements associated with the crime, do what Rep. (Charles) Pelkey (D-Laramie) indicated and have an escalated form of the crime. So three misdemeanors in five years results in a felony.”

Ramsey Scott is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at 307-633-3124 or rscott@wyomingnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RamseyWyoming.

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