Farm Property Rights

January 28, 2010 at 8:15 am

The following article was published by the OSU Ag Law Program, Peggy Kirk Hall, Director:

With the many recent snow we have received lately, many people have been able to enjoy riding their snowmobiles and four-wheelers. However, in so doing we must be aware of private property owner’s rights and respect those rights. This past week I have received some calls from property owners complaining about people on recreational vehicles trespassing on their property and damaging crops.

One of the main concerns is damage to wheat, which is planted in the fall, then goes into dormancy until the warm weather in the spring. Driving on it during the winter months may cause damage to the crop. Mainly, when snow and ice is compacted on top of the plants it may damage the crown and/or prevent oxygen from reaching the root system causing the plant to die. Estimates of approximately 40% crop loss can be attributed to plant damage and compaction by driving on wheat plants in the winter months. This estimate may increase or decrease depending on the condition of the soil (frozen or wet), and if the snow is compacted into ice.

Although the total acres affected by a single snowmobile driving across a field is very small, it’s still the responsibility of the driver to obtain permission from the property owner in order to prevent violating any trespassing laws.

Ohio law addresses many questions raised about farm security. Is there any recourse against four-wheelers who destroy farm crops? How can a farm owner be compensated for harm caused by trespassers? When addressing acts of harm to farm property, it is important to understand the difference between criminal and civil actions. Criminal laws define our duties to behave a certain way in the community. Civil laws define our private rights. Where someone intentionally destroys or harms property, that person may be breaking a criminal law and also violating the individual rights of the property owner. The person could be subject to legal recourse under both criminal and civil laws.

In addition to fines or imprisonment, criminal charges might include a request for compensation to the victim of the crime. But if the individual is not charged with a crime or compensation is not ordered or is inadequate, the property owner can bring a civil action against the individual. Where the property owner’s harm is not resolved through informal processes such as mediation or arbitration, the civil action would likely result in a court trial.

Reporting Crimes. The local sheriff’s office or police station is the primary law enforcement agency to which a property owner should report a crime. The Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, also has limited law-enforcement authority and may be willing to investigate or file charges when hunters or fishermen trespass or harm farm property.

The criminal trespass provision in Ohio law states that a person may not, without permission, do any of the following:

– Knowingly enter or remain upon the land or premises of another.
– Knowingly enter or remain on land or premises that are lawfully restricted to certain persons, purposes, modes, or hours.
– Recklessly enter or remain on another’s land or premises when notice against unauthorized access has been given by actual communication to the offender, or by posting or fencing the property.
– Negligently fail or refuse to vacate land or premises after being told to do so by the owner.
A person who violates this law is guilty of criminal trespass, a fourth-degree misdemeanor. In addition to fines and imprisonment, the court could order restitution to the property owner for damages caused by the criminal trespass.

Destruction of Crops and Timber
A law specific to farm situations is the law on “destruction of crops.” The law states that a person who, without permission, recklessly cuts, destroys, or injures crops, trees, vines, bushes, shrubs, or saplings growing on the land of another is guilty of a fourth-degree misdemeanor. “Recklessly” means that the offender realized the risk of harm that would be caused by his or her actions and acted with complete disregard of the harmful consequences. A person who violates this law is subject to a maximum imprisonment of 30 days and a maximum fine of $250. The crop and timber destruction law requires payment of damages to the property owner. In this case, the damages are severe, triple the amount of total loss to the property. These are referred to as “treble damages,” which are intended to punish the offender for reckless behavior.

Under Ohio law, a property owner has the right to use reasonable force to defend himself/herself or another person against a trespasser and would not be liable for harm caused to the offender. However, defense of property is not a valid legal justification for injuring or killing a trespasser. A property owner who harms or kills a trespasser who is not threatening a human being could be liable to the trespasser or his/her family.

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