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Forgive Us Our Trespasses (Or Not)

— May 1, 2023

Even those who piously pray for their own trespasses to be forgiven might meet the delivery guy or lost wanderers with guns ablaze lately. What gives?

Trespassing, unless undertaken with malice or intent to commit a crime, is one of those things that we’re supposed to forgive each other for, a mistake anyone can make. Unfortunately, a disturbing string of relatively mild trespasses with tragic endings has emerged as a theme in the news cycle. Let’s talk about those, why they’re important, and a couple less famous cases you may not have heard about.

Americans are getting jumpy these days.

Last month in upstate New York, several young adults were headed to a party. Momentarily lost, they turned up a wrong driveway, realized their mistake, and began to back out. That’s when they came under fire from the property owner, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan. One of the passengers, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis, was fatally shot. Monahan now faces second-degree murder charges for his hair-trigger response to the mildest of trespasses, a situation where nobody should have died.

Then there’s 16-year-old Ralph Yarl. He’d been sent on an errand to pick up his younger siblings back in mid-April, when he made the mistake of ringing the doorbell at an address on Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace, a block away in Kansas City, MO. The homeowner, 84-year-old Andrew D. Lester, shot Ralph through the exterior storm door, hitting him in the arm and the head. He said he saw a Black male “pulling on the exterior storm door handle” and he was “afraid that a break-in was in progress.” Yarl, who lived, said he did not pull on the handle. Lester eventually turned himself in to police and is being charged with assault in the first degree and armed criminal action.

There won’t be any charges at all for 43-year-old Antonio Caccavale, however, because officials in Davie, FL, say his gunfire was justified by fear. What was Caccavale so afraid of? His neighbor’s grocery delivery guy. Instacart driver Waldes Thomas, Jr. and companion Diamond Harley D’arville were looking for their customer’s house and paused for a moment in front of Caccavale’s residence, the house next door to the one they were looking for, to call the customer for directions. Then, according to Thomas and D’arville, Caccavale aggressively approached the car and grabbed or latched on to the car, inspiring the pair to leave quickly. The car struck Caccavale’s foot upon leaving, so “to protect his family and prevent further injury,” he opened fire and shot three times at the car as it sped away.

One more. In Farmington, NM, police responding to a domestic violence call early last month went to the wrong house by mistake. They knocked and got no answer, but after a short time the homeowner, Robert Dotson, opened the screen door while holding a handgun. The officers, upon seeing the gun, opened fire, killing Dotson and trading fire with Dotson’s wife.

Why have such mundane trespasses become so dangerous?

According to the Christian Science Monitor, we’re a society on edge. The current political climate combined with loosened gun laws makes for a potent cultural moment. With 26 states allowing permitless concealed carry, more people are armed but haven’t necessarily been trained in the proper use of a firearm. Front porches and driveways are a grey area where “castle doctrine” meets “stand your ground.” How long until proactive gunfire can be excused as self defense?

Earlier this year, a bill advanced in the Wyoming state legislature that would allow a landowner, legal occupant or their agent to use “reasonable and appropriate physical force” to “terminate” criminal trespasses upon the land or premises. It’s worth noting that our society’s definition of “reasonable and appropriate physical force” in the face of even mundane trespasses and legitimate mistakes is rather in flux at the moment.

Wyoming is a state full of hunters who should be rather worried about such a bill becoming law. The way land is laid out in a criss-crossing grid across the state, property lines meet at corners, much like a checkerboard. It’s not uncommon for two of those parcels to be public land, open to hunters, while the other two parcels are privately held land. “Corner crossing,” jumping across the center of the X from one public parcel to another while technically passing over private land, is a hot topic in Wyoming. If corner-crossing is illegal, some 404,000 public acres will become inaccessible to hunters and other wanderers.

A typical sign posted to mark the boundary of private property and forbid trespassing.
Photo by Penny Thompson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped. CC BY 2.0

In October 2021, four hunters from Missouri were cited for criminal trespass in Carbon County, WY, after corner-crossing. The case, which is now working its way through the federal court system, could change trespassing law in Wyoming. The men used a ladder to climb over a “fence-post obstacle” and claim to have touched no private land while doing so. Bradly Cape, one of the hunters, whose fence-building business requires him to possess a certain level of expertise with property boundary law, says he never crossed private airspace, either.

If the eventual verdict goes against the Missouri hunters, any future corner-crosser who technically trespasses on private land for the instant it takes to climb over it could justifiably be met with physical violence, and in an increasingly country and a property-sensitive West, that’s a volatile mixture that could end badly.

Finally, in reversing a district court’s decision, the Idaho Supreme Court recently pushed the boundary of what trespasses might actually look like. In 2019, Mountain Home police pulled Kirby Dorff over for failure to use a turn signal. When Dorff admitted that he didn’t have a valid driver’s license either, a longer conversation ensued, during which a K-9 unit approached Dorff’s car. Nero, the drug-sniffing dog, circled the car, sniffing the undercarriage, and eventually he “alerted” by jumping up and planting his paws on the driver’s side door. Officers then searched the car and found methamphetamine.

In court, Dorff moved to suppress the evidence because the “warrantless search” was based upon Nero’s trespassing paws. Lower courts denied the motion, but in a surprise ruling, the Idaho Supreme Court agreed that the dog had trespassed. He can sniff the public air, and even alert the officers to the presence of drugs, but the moment the dog touched Dorff’s Constitutionally protected chattel, law enforcement violated the Fourth Amendment. The drug conviction was thusly vacated.

Relaxed gun laws and political polarization aren’t the only factors adding to the national powder keg. Expanded definitions of what constitutes trespasses and what people can legally do to stop them may well provide the spark for a future explosion.

Related: Land Rights: Four American Perspectives


Man who fatally shot 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis after car turned in wrong driveway will remain in jail
Shooting of Teen Who Rang Doorbell at Wrong House Unsettles Kansas City
Florida police decline to make arrests after neighbor shoots at grocery delivery car
New Mexico police kill homeowner after showing up at wrong address
Wrong door, wrong driveway: How US got to shoot first, ask later
Bill would allow ‘physical force’ to ‘terminate’ suspected trespass
Corner crossing: Hunters challenge public-land access issue in court
Corner-crossing hunters claim ‘shared airspace’ in trespassing defense
Is a drug dog putting its paws on your car ‘trespassing’? Here’s what the Idaho Supreme Court said

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