Federal judge dismisses challenge to Wyoming trespassing law
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from groups that challenged Wyoming laws prohibiting trespassing on private lands to collect data.
Groups including the Western Watersheds Project, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Press Photographers Association sued Wyoming last year.
The groups claimed state laws prohibiting trespassing to collect data were unconstitutional. The groups said the laws, which allowed both civil penalties and criminal prosecution, would block people from informing government regulators about such things as violations of water quality rules and illegal treatment of animals.
U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper dismissed the groups’ lawsuit Wednesday, ruling there’s no constitutional right to trespass on private lands.
“The ends, no matter how critical or important to a public concern, do not justify the means, violating private property rights,” Skavdahl wrote.
Skavdahl last winter expressed concerns about earlier versions of the laws, which the Wyoming Legislature had passed early last year. The earlier versions sought to prohibit collection of data on “open lands,” a term Skavdahl said could be stretched to cover more than just private property.
In response to Skavdahl’s criticism, the Wyoming Legislature earlier this year revised the laws to specify they only applied to trespassing to collect data on private lands.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead on Thursday said he was pleased with Skavdahl’s dismissal of the groups’ lawsuit.
“There has been a lot of misinformation about the intent of this law,” Mead said. “The judge’s ruling affirms that the issue at the heart of the matter is preserving private property rights — a fundamental right in our country.”
David Muraskin, a lawyer representing Western Watersheds and the National Press Photographers Association, said Thursday that his clients are disappointed with Skavdahl’s ruling and are considering whether to appeal.
“We think it fails to recognize the state is seeking to limit the speech and government participation of a variety of groups,” Muraskin said of the ruling.
Muraskin emphasized Wyoming law doesn’t require that a person intend to enter onto private property to be found guilty of trespassing. He said it’s easy for people to inadvertently enter private land, saying there are instances where even government roads built on easements over private property don’t follow the same route on the ground as shown on official property records.
“We’re talking about whether the state can set out to suppress speech,” Muraskin said. “No one here is disagreeing with the fact that the state can regulate certain activities. No one is saying that the state can’t make a law saying you can’t go on people’s property.”
Rather, Muraskin said the revised state law violates the Constitution by seeking to specify that people can’t go onto other peoples’ property to gather information that allows them to exercise their right to speak.
“When someone does that, it makes people afraid to go out and get any kind of information,” he said. “That’s a bedrock principle in the Constitution.”