BOISE — Legislators are expected to vote on a bill Tuesday that will drastically loosen the responsibility of landowners to mark private property while significantly increasing the penalties for people charged with criminal trespass.
House Agricultural Affairs Chairwoman Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, is a rancher and the sponsor of House Bill 536, which — after hours of testimony — passed committee on Feb. 14 with a 14-1 vote and on Tuesday will hit the House floor with a “do-pass” recommendation.
“We need to change how we deal with trespass on private property,” Boyle told the Agricultural Affairs Committee on Feb. 8. “I know I have experienced a lot of problems (with trespassers) and most anybody with property over a period of time have had a lot of problems.”
Boyle prefaced introducing the bill by saying the property she privately owns as well as land owned by many others was extensively damaged when thousands of people flocked to Idaho to watch the total solar eclipse last summer.
Idaho law currently states that all private property owners are required to mark private land with orange paint or signage every 660 feet. Boyle called this process “pretty unsightly” and “very onerous.”
Under the new bill, private landowners would be required to mark only their property boundaries, access points and fishing streams crossing property lines.
“It is going to now be on the person who wants to be on private property to know where they are at and go ask permission,” Boyle said about the proposed legislation.
The new bill “makes a higher standard for people to know where they are,” Boyle said. “We all have GPS on our phones. If you plan on going somewhere, you better know where you are.”
Boyle also said the bill would create an opportunity for private landowners to provide permission slips to anyone who might access their land, which is something she said other states have implemented.
In terms of penalties, criminal trespass in Idaho currently carries a $50 fine and potentially a few months in jail. Under the new bill, the penalty for first time offenders would be $500.
“We hope that the prosecutors will take this seriously,” Boyle said. “But $50 is no incentive to waste the court’s time.”
Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, also serves on the Ag Committee and was the only dissenting vote when the bill passed committee. Erpelding said he has worked in the field before and has accidentally trespassed, adding that a $500 fine would have been five days of pay and that the amount seemed “excessive.”
“We put in here willful and intentional so that you know you are trespassing,” Boyle said. “It’s those people that come and cut your fence and drive out in your field, that’s intentional.”
Another committeeman, Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, questioned another measure of the bill that is in essence a third-strike rule, meaning that if someone is convicted of two trespass charges, the third offense is charged as a felony.
“It seems like a felony is a pretty serious charge for trespassing,” Armstrong said. “It changes your life once you become a felon — you can’t carry a gun can’t vote for a certain number of years. I think everybody in this room has been guilty of trespass in some way or another in their life. Is that a penalty that we want to make for trespassing?”
Boyle responded, “As a property owner, I think that is exactly what we need to teach them a lesson.”
Despite voting in favor of the bill in committee, Armstrong told the Journal on Monday that the bill has “some serious flaws.” Further, Armstrong said the bill is largely supported by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF), an organization that Boyle previously lobbied for.
In addition to the IFBF, the bill is supported by at least 30 farm groups, and largely opposed by many sportsman and outdoor advocacy groups.
Pocatello resident Greg McReynolds said he is a serious hunter and that he and many sportsmen are concerned more about the bill’s ambiguous implications regarding land posting and the potential felony charge than an increased penalty for first-time offenders.
“We are really concerned with the bill because it removes certainty from the trespass law,” McReynolds said. “When you jeopardize someone’s ability to hunt, fish or own a gun that does not seem right to me, and if the Legislature would like to see more serious penalties for trespassing, we would be happy to have conversations about that.”
McReynolds also noted that the removal of posting requirements every 220 yards not only impacts hunters and sportsmen, but also eliminates certainty for hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoor recreationists.
“How far does this trespassing law reach?” McReynolds said. “This is a really big deal, not just for hunters and anglers, but for mountain bikers. It could even affect Girl Scouts and missionaries.”
Brian Brooks is the executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF), the state’s oldest statewide conservation organization. Brooks called the new bill “divisive,” adding that IWF supporters have sent out over 5,000 letters in opposition to this issue alone.
“Trespassing is no good, nobody wants it,” Brooks told the committee on Feb. 14. “Honest and responsible hunters and anglers will still abide by private property laws, close gates, not shoot signs and respect livestock and therefore won’t be affected by an increase in fines. That is something we can support. However, this bill may negatively change relationships between honest sportsmen and landowners in Idaho, which we are worried about.”
Brooks told the Journal on Monday that comparing trespassers to felons like murderers and rapists just doesn’t make sense.
“We’re fine with increasing the fines on trespassing,” Brooks said. “Good honest anglers and hunters respect no-trespassing signs. We are trying to target the wrongdoers here. This bill unduly targets the people who would respect a ‘No Trespassing’ sign.”
Lastly, Brooks claimed the proponents of the bill who testified while it was in committee used anecdotes that — in addition to trespassing — covered incidents that are already illegal, such as littering, theft and vandalism. Also, Brooks said the new bill does nothing to address the issue of private landowners illegally restricting access to public lands.
This bill is pitting agricultural interests against hunter and sportsmen interests, which is just not needed,” Brooks said. “If they are so keen on raising the fines for trespassing are they going to raise the fines for folks cutting off access to public roads?”
Brooks continued, “We could have got our heads together and figured out all the problems. Instead, this bill was created in a vacuum and ramrodded through.”