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Federal Trespassing

Anytime you unlawfully enter land owned by the Federal government, you could face federal trespassing charges. From national forests to federal office complexes, to military bases, the US government owns vast areas of land across America. According to a 2004 report, the Federal government possesses around 30% of all land in the country—or 670 million acres—and owns or leases over 450,000 buildings.

Understanding what land is owned by the US government and how its jurisdiction operates can help you avoid trespassing and other federal criminal charges. You cannot defend against your trespassing charges by claiming that you were unaware of being on restricted Federal land. This is important to bear in mind when hiking or camping. An innocent excursion into nature could end with a US District Court violation notice and the possibility of hundreds of dollars in fines.

When Does the Federal Government Have Jurisdiction Over Land?

The Federal government does not necessarily exercise jurisdiction over the property it owns. Jurisdiction is a legal term that means the ability of a government’s judicial branch to exercise its power over the people and property present on a given territory. This means that you may face trespassing charges brought by either a State or Federal prosecutor for unlawfully entering Federal property.
US government property can be divided into three categories in terms of how its jurisdiction operates:

  • Exclusive jurisdiction—Where federal criminal law applies exclusively, such as in a military base
  • Concurrent jurisdiction—Where both federal and state criminal law applies, such as in most national forests
  • Proprietary jurisdiction—Where the Federal government has no more rights than a landowner, such as when a US government agency purchases or rents a floor in a city office building.

Trespassing in Land Administered by the National Parks System

A significant portion of the land owned by the United States is open to the public as parks, forests, recreation areas, game preserves, and historic sites administered through the national park system. This does not mean that everyone has an unrestricted right to access this land.

The public’s use of these locations is subject to regulations created by three agencies: the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Army. In addition, the US Congress has created several statutes that prohibit certain conduct within these lands, from trespassing to cutting timber, to defacing archeological artifacts.

Violating the various regulations that apply to national park system lands—including trespassing—may result in criminal charges. If convicted, you will face penalties ranging from three months imprisonment and/or a $100 fine or six months imprisonment and/or $500 of fines.

Trespassing in Federal Office Buildings

Federal offices and buildings are managed by the General Services Administration, whose duties include the protection of all the property under its control. In this capacity, the GSA has created regulations that apply to its buildings. Violating these regulations may result in 30 days of jail and/or a $50 fine.

Where the federal government only has proprietary jurisdiction over the building or office, you may face state trespassing charges for unlawfully entering. In Ohio, trespassing is a misdemeanor punishable by between 30 and 180 days in jail.

You may also face federal trespassing charges—all of which are misdemeanors—for entering a building or property that is under exclusive or concurrent federal jurisdiction and any of the following apply:

  • You did not have permission to come inside
  • Someone told you to leave and you remained
  • The building or property was fenced off and had no trespassing signs

Defending Against Trespassing Charges

If you get charged with trespassing, you should hire an experienced Ohio criminal defense lawyer to defend your case. Trespassing is a serious offense, and if you get convicted, you will have a criminal record that can affect your ability to get a job, apply for college, or obtain certain professional licenses.

There are two main strategies for defending a trespassing case. One option is to argue that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether you actually committed the offense. For example, you might put forward evidence showing that you were not actually on the forbidden property, that the property was open to the public, or that you had permission to enter.

In other cases, you may admit that the trespass did occur, but argue that it was justified. One common justification for trespassing is called necessity. This defense applies if you were forced to trespass because of a life-threatening emergency. For example, if you got caught in a snowstorm in a national park, you may be forgiven for breaking into a ranger outpost to seek shelter. Even when the trespass is justified, however, you will face civil liability for any damage you cause.

Call An Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

At Luftman, Heck & Associates, we have the experience and skills necessary to successfully defend against your trespassing charges, whether brought by a federal or state prosecutor. We will analyze all of the available evidence, determine the best defense strategy, and then aggressively advocate on your behalf. If you’re facing charges for trespassing on federal land, call us today at for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP
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Columbus, OH 43215-5335
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