California laws recognize and uphold respect for private property. It is an offense to access or remain on someone else’s property without their permission. If you are caught doing so, you can be subject to trespass charges, which upon conviction, you face penalties like jail terms and fines. However, before you are sentenced, the law allows you to defend yourself, because you may be innocent. It could be a case of mistaken identity, false accusations, or there might be insufficient proof to convict you.

It takes an expert attorney to convince the judge that you are innocent. Therefore, if you are arrested or charged for trespassing, contact the Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm as soon as possible. We understand California trespass laws and are highly regarded as knowledgeable advocates who fight for our clients’ rights. Sometimes, our intervention before the filing of charges can prevent the criminal case filing altogether. We urge you to trust in us as we fight to obtain the most favorable outcome for your case.

Understanding the Legal Meaning of Trespass

Penal Code (PC) 602 is the California law on trespass. This statute describes more than thirty acts that qualify to be criminal trespass. Generally, trespassing involves entering a structure or land that another person owns without their consent and declining to leave. This includes either private property that an individual owns, business property, or government property that’s not open for public use. Trespassing can be accomplished by riding a bike, driving an auto to private property, or even walking in on foot.

Common examples of the actions forbidden under the trespassing laws are:

  • Entering another person’s property intending to damage it
  • Declining to leave a person’s property after being requested to do so
  • Going into another person’s property intending to obstruct or interfere with the business operations that go on there
  • Going into and occupying one’s property without his/her permission

Consider this example: A homeless man enters a public library and stays there for the whole day, not doing anything but just sitting on the floor. When it’s time to close, the security personnel asks the man out. The man pretends he’s walking out, but instead goes to the ladies’ bathroom and hides there. The following morning, the man proceeds to scare the ladies who go into the washroom by growling at them. In this scenario, this man has violated trespass laws by refusing to leave a public property after being requested.

Also, we have more specific kinds of trespass that are even more bizarre. They include cases like:

  • Taking dirt, stone, or soil off of another person’s land without authorization
  • Refusing to be screened at a courthouse or airport
  • Taking oysters off of a person’s land
  • Digging into city lots
  • Destroying, injuring, or cutting down any timber or wood that’s growing or standing on someone’s property

Given these two sets of examples, the legal meaning of a California trespass offense is more complicated. However, specific facts of the offense complete the legal description of most types of trespass.

Elements of a Trespassing Crime

Elements of trespass are the facts the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction to occur. There are three elements of the crime of trespass, namely:

  • You willfully went into someone’s property
  • Specifically intending to obstruct or interfere with the individual’s property rights
  • You eventually obstructed/ interfered with their rights (for instance, by damaging or destroying their, or interfering with the business operations in that property

Let’s look at the legal definition of various terms used in these elements to gain an in-depth understanding as far as trespassing is concerned.

You Willfully Entered Into Another Person’s Property

Willfully means on purpose, deliberately, or intentionally. Willfully doing something does not necessarily imply that you had the intent to violate the law. It merely means you aimed to do whatever action you did.

You Had the Specific Intention to Obstruct the Individual’s Property Rights

Specific intent refers to a certain mental state. If you are acting with a specified intention, it means you not only intend to perform your action, but you also aim to achieve specific results out of that act. For example, Brad doesn’t have anywhere to live. After begging on the streets, he decides to use what he has earned to buy lunch at a restaurant where office employees usually have their meal. Brad goes into the restaurants and orders his food.

His untidy body and clothes odor drives most customers away. In this case, Brad went into the restaurant willfully, and his presence interfered with the restaurant’s operations. However, since he didn’t specifically aim to cause interference, he isn’t criminally liable for trespass.

Actual Damage to Business or Violating Property Rights

You cannot be convicted of entering a person’s property intending to destroy it or obstruct/interfere with business operations on the property if the prosecution cannot prove that actual interference or damage occurred. If you went into the property with the intent to obstruct/interfere with the business or cause damage and did not end up doing so, then you aren’t guilty of violating PC 602.

Occupying the Property in Question

One common form of trespass that’s prosecuted under PC 602 is the action of occupying another person’s property without consent from them. In this case, the term ‘occupy’ means remaining in a given place continuously for a substantial period.

Trespassing might not appear to be a severe offense, particularly if you accidentally found yourself on another person’s property. However, if you are prosecuted under trespass law, you could end up being subject to more severe charges, like burglary.

If you had tools in your possession, for example, things like a pair of pliers or a screwdriver, the law enforcement officer may accuse you of attempted burglary. The prosecution might also apply this tactic to have you plead guilty to a lesser offense by threatening a more severe charge.

Penalties for the Crime of Trespass

The charges of violating PC 602 are unique since they could be prosecuted as misdemeanors, infractions, or felonies in limited cases.

Misdemeanor Trespass (PC 602)

Most of the trespass allegations are prosecuted as misdemeanors. Possible penalties may include a maximum of six months in jail, a fine not exceeding $1,000, and misdemeanor probation. However, specific misdemeanor trespass forms, like declining to leave a bank after the manager requests you to go, carry possible one-year jail time.

Infraction Trespass (PC 602.8)

There’s one simple and prevalent kind of trespass that’s usually prosecuted as an infraction. Particularly, if you deliberately enter someone’s land without authorization and the land is fenced or has ‘do not trespass’ signs displayed at intervals, you would face infraction trespass charges under PC 602.8.

If convicted, you will be subject to a fine of $75 if you are a first offender and $250 if it’s a second violation on that same land. But if it’s a third violation committed on that same land, you’ll face misdemeanor trespass charges.

Felony (Aggravated) Trespass (PC 601)

Aggravated trespass under PC 601 is a unique form of trespass. It happens when you:

  • Make believable threats to severely injure someone else intending to make them fear for their safety or the safety of their family
  • Within thirty days of making threats, you enter the victim’s workplace or property with the specific intent to fulfill the threats

Note that the credible threat can be accomplished either in writing, orally, or via electronic communication. It could also be implied through a pattern of behavior.

PC 601 is a wobbler offense. This means the prosecutor has the discretion to charge you with either a felony or misdemeanor, based on your criminal record and the circumstances surrounding your case. Misdemeanor punishments for a PC 601 violation include a maximum of one year in jail and a fine that does not exceed $2,000. And if convicted of a felony, you could face three, two years, or sixteen months in prison. Alternatively, the judge could sentence you to serve formal (felony) probation rather than prison time.

Generally, aggravated trespassing involves domestic or workplace disputes. For instance, if a person is fired and threatens their coworker when leaving the office and later comes back to the workplace, they could be prosecuted under aggravated trespassing laws.

Apart from criminal charges, the property owner can bring a civil lawsuit against you for any damage or harm done to their property. You may be required to compensate the property owner for the value of all the things you took or the repair cost for any damage you caused.

Expunging Your Trespass Conviction Record

If you’re found guilty of trespass and the judge sentences you to probation instead of prison time, you could expunge your conviction record after completing the probation sentence. But the judge may deny you the expungement request if you violate any probationary terms and conditions.

Trespass as a Plea Bargain

Requesting or offering a trespass charge at plea bargaining negotiations could be reasonable in certain circumstances. For instance, a trespass offense may replace a domestic violence or burglary charge. This may be fair for the accused since a trespass sentence doesn’t carry much social stigmatization on a person’s criminal history, as more severe crimes do. Also, trespass usually has lenient penalties.

Immigration Consequences of a Trespass Plea

Defendants who aren’t United States citizens should be cautious when requesting trespass as a plea bargain. This is because trespassing could be deemed an offense that involves moral turpitude when committed either:

  • Intending to damage a person’s property rights or property, or
  • Intending to obstruct or interfere with business operations in someone’s property

Crimes that involve moral turpitude have severe consequences on the defendant’s immigration status.

However, this does not imply that non-United States citizens shouldn’t ever seek trespass as a plea bargain. Certain kinds of trespass, like, going into and occupying a person’s property without their permission, with the intent to do any harmful act to that property, aren’t offenses that involve moral turpitude. It’s critical to consult with a lawyer who understands immigration and criminal laws before entering a guilty plea to a PC 602 trespass offense.

Fighting Trespass Charges

Luckily, there are several legal defenses a skilled criminal defense attorney could argue in court on your behalf to dismiss or reduce your trespass charges.  Therefore, even when it appears as though you’re guilty of trespass, do not despair. People are wrongfully accused of a trespass crime all the time when, in the real sense, they did not intend to break the law. An experienced criminal lawyer can often have the charge dismissed or reduced so you can face lenient penalties.

Based on the PC 602 subsection under which you are charged and the specific facts surrounding your case, possible defenses are:

The Right to Enter the Property in Question

You can’t be found guilty of trespassing if it was your right to enter the property. An illustration of you having the right to enter a person’s property is engagement in labor organizing or legal union activity. An expert criminal defense lawyer can also help you determine whether you had the right to enter the property since you were performing a constitutionally protected activity.

You Had Permission to Enter the Said Property

If you’re being charged for occupying someone’s property without their consent, you could be capable of proving that you aren’t guilty if the owner initially consented that you could be on it.  Put otherwise; if you went into a property after authorization, but later occupied it (i.e., remained in it for a substantial amount of time) without permission, you aren’t guilty of trespass.

But if the owner of that property specifically requested you to go, you’re required to do the necessary and leave to avoid being criminally liable. An exception is if you were participating in constitutionally protected events like labor organizing.

You Did Not Occupy the Said Property

For you to be found guilty of violating PC 602 for occupying a person’s property, you need to have, in the real sense, deprived the property owner of their enjoyment or use of their property in a way and did that for a significant continuous period. Therefore, if you’re accused of trespassing for a short stay on another’s property with no permission from them, you can successfully argue that you aren’t guilty since you didn’t go into and occupy their property.

You Did Not Interfere with or Obstruct the Operations in the Property

This defense works in a situation where you are charged with trespass that prohibits you from going into someone’s property, intending to obstruct or interfere with business activities. If you are accused, you must have, in the real sense, obstructed or interfered with that business. In case you did not, then you have not committed any trespass offense. Therefore, merely participating in an activity that the property owner disapproves doesn’t make you a trespasser, unless the action created a real interference with or obstructed the property’s operations.

The Land Was Not Signed or Enclosed (In the Case of an Infraction Trespass Offense)

As we mentioned earlier, you may face infraction trespass charges under PC 602.8 for going into property without permission if it’s either enclosed or fenced or marked with ‘do not trespass’ signs posted at intervals.

It could be that the property wasn’t fully fenced, or maybe signs weren’t displayed in all the areas they should’ve been posted. If these situations apply to your case, your lawyer may be capable of having the charges against you dismissed.

No Actual Proof of Trespass

We have cases where a property owner can claim that a person went into their property and wouldn’t provide any evidence to ascertain the same. Certain property owners can also be mistaken about their property lines. If the property owner’s testimony is the only available evidence, a skilled lawyer can call into question their statement’s reliability.

You Did Not Know You Weren’t Permitted to be on the Property

The application of this defense depends on the specific facts surrounding your case. Your attorney can argue that you weren’t aware or couldn’t have reasonably been aware you were forbidden from going into the property, so you didn’t act willfully. This defense won’t work in a situation where there were specific signs against trespassing posted on the property, but you still did anyway.

And if you’ve been accused of felony trespassing under PC 601, the legal defenses you can use is that your supposed threat wasn’t credible. Or you could also say that when you made the threat, you did not intend to make the victim fear for his/her safety or the safety of their family members. Your lawyer may also be capable of arguing that you did not intend to fulfill the threat when you went to the victim’s workplace or home.

Trespass and Related Offenses

Trespassing charges are usually filed instead of or along with various other related crimes. This is because these offenses share certain facts with the crime of trespassing. Common ones are:

PC 594, Vandalism

PC 594, vandalism law forbids damaging, destroying, or defacing a person’s property. In a situation where you vandalize a person’s property while you’re illegally on the property, the DA could prosecute you under both vandalism and trespass laws.

The punishments for vandalism are based on the worth of the property in question. Vandalism is charged as a misdemeanor when the property’s value is lower than $400. When the damaged property’s value is $400 and above, it is charged as a wobbler. 

PC 459, Burglary

Under PC 459, the burglary statute applies when a person enters another’s property intending to commit petty theft or a felony once inside. Thus, for instance, if you go into someone’s property aiming to commit PC 601, aggravating trespass, you can be prosecuted under both the burglary and aggravated trespass law. However, based on the facts surrounding the case, PC 602 violation could even be a lesser included crime of a PC 459 charge. In a situation like this, you can face punishment for only one crime, and not both.

Burglary is charged as a felony when it’s committed in a person’s home. If it’s committed in other structures, like a business premise, it becomes a wobbler. Possible jail time ranges from a year in jail if it’s a non-residential misdemeanor burglary to six years in prison for felony burglaries of residential.

Theft Offenses

If you illegally enter someone’s property in violation of PC 602, then steal something when on the property, The DA could prosecute you under both trespass law and any of the several theft crimes in California. The exact facts surrounding your crime would determine the theft offense charge you will face, for instance, petty theft and grand theft applies.

Domestic Violence Crimes

Several domestic violence statutes are usually prosecuted in connection with trespass. For instance, PC 646.9, stalking law forbids threatening or harassing someone else to a point where they fear for their safety. And PC 422, criminal threats statute prohibits making credible threats against someone. Stalking is among the many domestic violence offenses that could be prosecuted along with the crime of trespass. If you’re charged with any of these offenses, and also accused of unlawfully entering the property where the person works/lives, you could face both domestic violence and trespass charges.

Find a Trespass Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

If you or the person you love is facing trespass charges, you should contact a skilled criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. At Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have successfully defended trespass suspects for years. We will hold a meeting with you to assess all the circumstances surrounding your case and develop a defense strategy that could help you obtain the best possible outcome. Since we are available 24/7, there is always an expert criminal defense lawyer available to assist you. Contact us at 714-740-7848 for a cost-free consultation.