Forgive us our trespasses

The chain of events that led to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last February in Sanford began with the suspicion that the Florida teenager was trespassing and therefore was “up to no good.”

This trespass warning sign is posted at the Sarasota Garden Club.

Trespass laws in Florida are strict and they are strictly enforced. These laws (Florida Statutes Chapter 810) cover trespass on public land and private property. In addition, local authorities such as county or city governments, may enact their own trespass ordinances.  Many have, including the City of Sarasota.

In April, however, Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier suspended the city’s trespass law for 60 days in the face of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 6,500 plaintiffs by the Sarasota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union against the Sarasota Police Department. The city trespass ordinance, which deals only with violations on public property, is under review.

One reason for the review is that on Sept. 28, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit declared two important provisions of the City of St. Petersburg’s trespass ordinance unconstitutional. This law, which the plaintiffs claimed focused unfairly on the homeless, protesters and other “undesirable” persons, is similar to that enacted by the City of Sarasota.

In Catron et al. v City of St. Petersburg, the court held that the city’s trespass ordinance failed to provide relief for a trespass “warning-recipient” to challenge in court a trespass citation, thus violating his equal protection rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court also held that banning persons from bus stops on public land violated an individual’s right to access to intrastate travel as guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.

On May 21, the Sarasota City Council voted unanimously to amend the trespass ordinance to allow a warning-recipient seven days in which to challenge a written trespass warning by police. In the past, only a verbal warning had been required, and the right of an individual cited for trespass to a court challenge was not automatic or guaranteed.

Florida laws governing trespass on private property are different. They distinguish among three types of private property: residential (such as homes, condos, gated communities, etc.), public and commercial property with controlled access (such as construction sites, schools, utilities, etc.), and commercial property with open public access (such as supermarkets, restaurants, shops, etc.)

Only certain individuals may enter any of these types of private property without permission of the owner.  They include police and other law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMT responders, post office letter carriers and couriers (FedEx and UPS), etc.

Private owners, when not physically present on their property, may assign responsibility to local law enforcement officers to issue trespass warnings and to make arrests if the trespass warnings are not heeded.

Commercial public access accommodations (such as, restaurants and supermarkets) may employ the trespass laws to exclude persons whom the owners or operators would prefer, for whatever reason, not patronize their establishments. The right of the accused to confront his accusers in court is not guaranteed.

According to Florida trespass law activist Edward Ringwald, “In short, a property owner or his authorized agent (usually a store manager) can exclude (and even ban for life) anyone from the premises for any reason regardless of race, sex, marital status, age, or national origin. Such exclusion is under threat of arrest and criminal prosecution for trespassing. All of this is without benefit of due process and trial.”

So what happens if you are arrested for trespassing on private property? You may be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.

For example, you can be charged with a third-degree felony if you trespass on a designated (1) construction site; (2) commercial property for horticultural products; (3) agricultural site for testing or research purposes; (4) restricted site, such as a correctional facility; or an (5) agricultural chemicals manufacturing facility. An offender found carrying a firearm or other dangerous weapon may also face felony charges for “armed trespass.”

The penalties for trespassing on other types of private property, usually a first-degree misdemeanor, take into account the action or intent of the alleged trespasser. This includes releasing or endangering livestock, littering or dumping trash, exposing crops to harm, etc.

A third-degree felony conviction may be punished by incarceration up to five years. A first-degree misdemeanor conviction may be punished by incarceration up to one year.

A trespass conviction has potentially serious consequences, not the least of which is the creation of a permanent criminal record. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the consequences were unimaginably greater.

(Editor’s note: The above is presented as information only and is not legal advice. For legal advice, consult an attorney.)