Guest Opinions

Idaho sheriffs: This bad trespass law puts innocent hunters, hikers at unnecessary risk

No trespassing signs can be found along many roads skirting open range in the Boise Foothills that hikers, bikers and hunters find enticing to explore.
No trespassing signs can be found along many roads skirting open range in the Boise Foothills that hikers, bikers and hunters find enticing to explore. Idaho Statesman file

The new criminal trespass law became effective July 1 and it carries the potential to ensnare innocent people because they trespass without knowing they are doing it. The law eliminates the requirement that large tracks of land in the backcountry be posted before a person can be charged with trespassing. Now, a hunter or hiker can pass from public to private land without knowing and be charged with a crime. Much of Idaho’s land is intermingled between public and private land so this is a real possibility.

The Idaho Property Rights Coalition placed ads in Idaho newspapers July 22 titled, “Facts About Idaho Trespass Law,” and many of their claims were simply wrong.

The new law has many problems. Among those is the idea that a person can be treated as a criminal, not because of what he knows, but rather what he should have known. When guilt or innocence will turn on implications or vague language, innocent people will be charged. When a law declares a person guilty in one section and innocent in another for the same act, there is a major problem. The irony of all this is that when a police officer or sheriff arrests someone and the court declares the law too vague to enforce, or decides that someone’s rights have been trampled on, we get sued, not the legislature and not the sponsors of the deeply flawed law.

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The property rights sponsors were looking after their own interests but forgot that civil rights are as important as property rights. This is why law enforcement was so deeply concerned about not only the law itself but the process by which the law was enacted.

Another consequence of the new law could be as simple as going on your neighbor’s property to retrieve a Frisbee or to clean up your dog’s waste and being charged with trespass. The bill’s sponsors said that would be unreasonable, however the wording of the new law would allow this.

What was stunning is that law enforcement was not invited to participate in crafting the new trespass law. We were excluded from the process. After learning the legislation was introduced we scrambled to “fix” the bill which was poorly drafted and marginalized common citizens to land owners. Acceptance of some of our recommendations came slowly only after resistance by legislators who agreed with our points. In the Sunday papers, the suggestion to readers was that law enforcement was included and everything was just fine. That was not the case.

It is our hope the bill’s sponsors will work with law enforcement and legislators to fix problems with the existing law. Our desire is to support property owners from onerous trespassers and at the same time protect citizens from being prosecuted for a crime they are not aware they are committing. With their ad, the coalition (whoever they are) seems to be doubling down on this bad law. We fear that they will resist common-sense changes and the people that will suffer are the innocent people of Idaho.

Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue is president of the Idaho Sheriff’s Association.