This story was updated with Rep. Barry Crago’s comments at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6. —Ed.
The Legislature has advanced a bill that legalizes use of physical force by a landowner or landowner’s agent to “terminate” what they believe is criminal trespass.
HB-126 — Trespass–removal of trespasser would update the current Wyoming criminal trespass code to state: “A person who is the owner or legal occupant of land or a premises upon which a criminal trespass is occurring, or their agent, is justified in using reasonable and appropriate physical force upon another person when and to the extent that it is reasonably necessary to terminate what the owner, occupant or agent reasonably believes to be the commission of a criminal trespass by the other person in or upon the land or premises.”
In other words, it would enable an owner to use physical force independent of an official determination of trespass.
The House advanced the bill on a 57-5 vote Thursday after rejecting an amendment that would exempt the First-Amendment right of people to peaceably assemble. The Senate has referred it to the Travel Recreation and Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee, which has yet to schedule it for consideration.
Reps. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) and Art Washut (R-Casper) and Sens. Bill Landen (R-Casper) and Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) sponsored the bill.
The bill would justify the use of “reasonable and appropriate physical force upon another person.” That force could be applied by a landowner or legal occupant of land or a premises, or their agent.
Force would be justified “when and to the extent that it is reasonably necessary to terminate what the owner, occupant or agent reasonably believes to be the commission of a criminal trespass.”
A caveat states that the statute would not supersede laws applying to and protecting self-defense.
The idea for the bill came from a constituent in Buffalo, Rep. Crago said in an email.
Trespassing a hot topic
The measure’s smooth sailing through the House comes as trespass is on the minds of Wyoming hunters and ranchers following a corner-crossing criminal trespass trial in Carbon County. In that confrontation, a six-person jury found four Missouri hunters not guilty of criminal trespass when they hop-scotched from one piece of public land to another without setting foot on private land.
The incident occurred in 2021 at the 22,045-acre Elk Mountain Ranch where common corners of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property and land owned by North Carolina businessman Fred Eshelman meet at a four-way intersection of checkerboard-pattern real estate.
Steve Grende, the ranch’s property manager, followed and harassed the hunters on public land after they passed through the airspace above a common corner with the ranch, the hunters allege. Law enforcement agents summoned by Grende initially declined to cite the hunters, or interfere with their hunt. The Carbon County prosecutor later charged the men with trespass following complaints by Grende.
Eshelman also sued the hunters claiming $7.75 million in damages. His separate civil lawsuit against the men is scheduled to go to trial in federal court this summer.
The bill brought criticism from a hunter who helped publicize the Carbon County trespass case and raise money for the Missouri hunter’s defense. Jeff Muratore said he wrote lawmakers asking why they sponsored the bill.
“I’m greatly saddened at the possibility of people getting hurt or killed over trespassing and even more saddened that something like this would be considered in our legislative body,” Muratore wrote legislators, according to an email he sent to WyoFile.
“Are rich landowners going to now post their henchm[e]n at corners of public and private to physically constrain someone?” the email states. Muratore characterized the bill as one that would allow Wyoming to “step back to the wild west.”
Rep. Crago said the request for a law came from a single person in Buffalo who teaches self-defense and church-security classes. That person asked whether one could take action “if we think somebody is about to do something really bad.”
Common law allows such action, Crago said. “What this bill is an attempt to do is put this in statute,” he said.
He is not worried the law might incite violence.
“This is already the law, case law, common law,” he said. “It only allows for reasonable measures — that’s an objective standard.
“You can’t just shoot somebody who walks across your lawn — that’s not reasonable.”
Many states have similar laws, he said.