There are all kinds of criminal trespass, but without a doubt the most grievous kind happened to archery hunter Pritch Morgan back in 1988. He was bowhunting during the archery season and walking on his own land when he was reportedly mistaken for a deer and shot dead by a trespasser.
The trespasser was hunting with a rifle out of season. The family of Pritch Morgan and the whole outdoor community was outraged by this terrible act. But since the shooting was supposedly an “accident,” the trespasser could only be charged with a misdemeanor offense, even though he was committing a crime when the shooting occurred. Seeing this miscarriage of justice and working to prevent further deaths in the outdoors, Steve Burch and the staff of GON, working with Georgia legislators, proposed the “Pritch Morgan Bill.”
Passed in 1989, the law became O.C.G.A. 16-11-108: Misuse of firearm or archery tackle while hunting. In simple terms, if a person misuses a firearm or archery tackle to cause harm to another, it shall be a misdemeanor. However, if such misconduct results in serious bodily harm, the offender can be charged with a felony and be punished by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisoned for not less than one year nor more than 10 years, or both. Of course there is absolutely no excuse for harming or shooting another hunter while hunting, and this bill elevated the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony for serious bodily harm.
There are several elements of Georgia criminal trespass law that must be discussed, but to avoid bogging down in legal terms, we will only deal with the basics. If you want full details, refer to the Georgia criminal code sections mentioned, speak to your attorney or local DNR Law Enforcement office.
A person commits the offense of criminal trespass (O.C.G.A. 16-7-21) when he intentionally damages any property of another and the damage is $500 or less or knowingly and maliciously interferes with the possession or use of the property of another person without consent of that person or enters upon the land or premises of another person for an unlawful purpose.
A person commits the offense of criminal trespass when he or she knowingly and without authority enters upon the land or premises of another person after receiving, prior to such entry, notice from the owner that such entry is forbidden.
Also, a person commits the offense of criminal trespass when he remains upon the land or premises of another person after receiving notice from the owner or rightful occupant to depart. A person who commits the offense of criminal trespass shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
Thus, in summary, the key elements of the Georgia criminal trespass law are entry for an unlawful purpose, damages to property, illegal entry on land after being notified that entry is forbidden, and refusing to leave such property when asked to do so.
Region 4 DNR Law Enforcement Supervisor Chris Hodge, in Macon, said that it is the hunter’s responsibility to have permission to hunt on someone else’s property and to be aware of the property lines. He said that posted signs on a property is a good idea but not legally required.
The prior notification aspect of the criminal trespass law makes it challenging for Law Enforcement to write tickets for criminal trespass, said Sgt. Tony Fox with DNR Law Enforcement. He said another law, “hunting without permission,” usually addresses the situation and is easier to prosecute in court.
The hunting without permission law (O.C.G.A. 27-3-1) states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to hunt upon the lands of another or enter upon the lands of another in pursuit of wildlife, with or without a license, without first obtaining permission from the landowner or lessee of such land or the lessee of the game rights of such land.”
It is OK to give verbal permission for others to hunt or fish on your land. However, if the land is posted and if the owner of the land, lessee of the land, or lessee of the game rights of the land has informed a law enforcement agency that permission to hunt upon the land must be in writing, then the permission must be in writing and must be carried on the hunter’s person. Violation of this law is a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not less than $500. Penalties increase for repeat offenders, and it becomes a misdemeanor of high and aggravated nature with the loss of hunting license.
Hunting without permission is one of the most common violations reported to DNR, said Fox. There are several things a landowner can do to reduce this problem.
- Clearly mark your property lines with highly visible posted signs, and keep them in good repair. Signs that are old and falling apart might work but do not covey the message that the owner is serious or diligent in confronting trespassers. Put the signs along major points of entry, along roads bordering your land, and place them no farther than 50 yards apart. Some lands are marked with white paint around the tree trunk, which is a good idea, but make sure you follow the surveyed land lines.
- Where practical, consider putting up a fence.
- Use locked gates or cables across all your points of entry. As you know, locks are only for honest people, as a criminal will only be slowed down, but it does send a strong message that you care about protecting your property rights.
- Know your neighbors, and work with them on property rights issues, game management and other issues of concern. If desired, pre-arrange with your neighbors the right to pursue wounded game across property lines. In Georgia, hunters do not have permission to track wounded game or follow hunting dogs on another’s private property without the landowner’s permission, said Capt. Hodge. This is where prior pro-active planning with adjoining landowners is important, and deer/dog hunters must have a special deer/dog permit in counties where deer/dog hunting is allowed.
- Put up trail cameras in likely access areas that can snap the vehicle tag of a trespasser. Conceal cameras in brushpiles or other hideaway locations, or you’ll just get your camera stolen. At your main gate, for serious problems, consider putting a camera high in a tree that can only be reached with a ladder and is hidden.
- For serious trespassing problems, Capt. Hodge suggests that landowners talk with their local conservation ranger and discuss the “Land Owner Affidavit” process which gives the local conservation ranger permission to arrest trespassers on your land with a pre-set list of those who have permission to be there. But the affidavit also commits the landowner to prosecute cases.
OK, let’s assume you just confronted a hunter on your property. Although you might feel emotional and want to put the person in a choke hold, you cannot injure or shoot someone who has entered your property, unless they threaten you with serious bodily harm. Keep the meeting calm, especially since firearms are probably present. Ask rational questions, such as “Who are you? What are you doing on my land?” Ask to see some ID, such as a driver license, and take a cell phone photo of the trespasser and his vehicle tag number.
If you are going to call law enforcement and press charges, you can ask the offender to remain with you, but do not try to forcibly prevent him from leaving. With ID information, you can pursue the charges the next day.
Before it gets too hot, get out and hang some no trespassing signs and secure your hunting lands for the summer months that lie ahead when most hunting clubs go dormant.