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Senators kill ‘physical force’ trespass-termination bill

Hunters protest a measure that would have justified ‘termination’ of criminal trespass by landowners, their agents.

A still from the video shows Elk Mountain Ranch Manager Steve Grende talking with Wyoming Game and Fish officer Jake Miller. (Screengrab/Carbon County Circuit Court)

Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile

Senators have killed a bill that would have legalized “physical force” to “terminate” a perceived trespass, rejecting an expansion of criminal statutes backed by 57 representatives.

House Bill 126 – Trespass-removal of trespass ran into heavy criticism in a Senate committee for what many saw as its potential to accelerate violence, reliance on individual interpretations of the law and other problems.

Sens. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) and Stacy Jones (R-Rock Springs) out-voted supporting Sens. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) and Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) on the Travel, Recreation Wildlife & Cultural Resources panel Thursday.

The measure would have “justified” landowners or agents who use “reasonable and appropriate physical force … reasonably necessary to terminate what the owner, occupant or agent reasonably believes to be the commission of a criminal trespass…”

Ellis, an attorney, foresaw trouble.

“Landowners who really dislike each other … I see them fighting and having assault charges and having our courts have to resolve … who was in the right on the assault,” she said.

“There’s going to be people hurt over something like this.” DAVID JENSEN

“It’s all tied to whether or not the trespass was actually illegal or not,” Ellis said of her example of the bill’s potential consequences. “They both claim they have a legal right to be there.”

Although the word reasonable, or a form of it, appeared three times in the bill, Gierau said he feared “unreasonable people on both sides” would lead to problems. Further, despite assertions by sponsor Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo), the bill is not necessary for self-protection, he said.

“There are self-defense statutes,” Gierau said. “We have a plethora … as far as how people can deal with situations where their life, safety or family’s — or their own personal well-being — is at stake.”

Shootings, stabbings…

Crago, an attorney and rancher, explained the bill to the committee, saying “we have all these shootings … we have stabbings,” he said, “and what we’re trying to do is let people know — hey, if something’s occurring, you can take action.”

“If you think something bad is about to happen, get the [disruptive] people out of the building,” Crago said. “Don’t question whether or not you have the legal right to do that. Just get it done.”

Hunters and outdoor recreation backers opposed the bill, including the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which worried about “the escalation of conflict in the field,” advocate Sabrina King said. Other states that have similar laws have placed sideboards on conduct, she said, unlike the Wyoming bill.

“You cannot do this if forcible removal would result in serious bodily injury,” she said of one caveat in other states’ laws that was missing from the Wyoming bill.

Worries about the bill “escalating tensions between landowners and the public” also bothered the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said Josh Metten, the group’s Wyoming community partnerships coordinator.

Casper hunter Jeff Muratore anticipated the bill causing “many instances … where people will get hurt, and possibly killed in situations where someone tries to put their hands on another person to physically remove them,” he said. That consequence could grow from a perceived lowly misdemeanor, he said.

The bill would lead to “too many conflicts,” said Buzz Hettick, Wyoming board chairman of the BHA. “We are trying really hard right now, as hunters and anglers, to work with private landowners to … de-escalate the trespass issues,” he told the committee.

Buffalo resident Jim Gray supported the measure that he said would protect people from “an overzealous prosecutor” who would charge them for defending themselves from a disruptive person.

“The [disruptive] person may be getting ready to commit a physical act of violence or … inflict death or serious bodily injury on innocents,” he said. “By removing the disruptive person before this happens, we can prevent escalation.”

Corner-crossing implications?

The measure ran through much of the Legislature’s structure in the wake of a high-profile Wyoming corner-crossing trespass case that has drawn nationwide attention. In an ongoing civil lawsuit, the owner of the Elk Mountain Ranch in Carbon County claims four Missouri hunters damaged his 22,045-acre ranch by more than $7.75 million by passing through its airspace.

That 2021 conflict came at the common corner of two public and two private pieces of property, all arranged in a checkerboard pattern of land ownership. 

A jury last year found the men not guilty of criminal trespass but ranch owner Fred Eshelman sued them in a separate civil action.

The hunters and the landowner disagree about whether a trespass occurred. Crago’s bill, had it passed, would appear to have empowered the landowner in similar future disputes to settle the matter in the field with physical force based on his or her belief about “the commission of a criminal trespass…”

The House Judiciary Committee backed the now-dead physical-force trespass bill and it sailed through the lower chamber 57-5.

But the bill has “nothing to do” with corner crossing, Crago said.

“I think there’s a lot of people that think this is about hunting and corner crossing and all that and it has nothing to do with that,” he told the committee.

Nevertheless, “I couldn’t help but think of the corner-crossing situation,” Gillette resident David Jensen told committee members.

“Watch the body-cam footage of that corner-crossing case,” he said. Hunters allege they were harassed by the ranch property manager. “It was a tense situation,” Jensen said.

A similar face-off could result in “improper use of physical force” even when suspected trespassers, like the Missouri men, are not guilty, he said. “There’s going to be people hurt over something like this,” he said.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.