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In my door-to-door ministry work I've observed various forms of "No Tresspassing" signs on properties. Do "Private Property" signs imply the same laws as a "No Tresspassing" sign?

At one house in particular, the owner had posted a sign which said "Private Property," but had covered the "No Tresspassing" part of the sign with duct tape. We skipped that house to stay on the safe side, but would like to know if there are actually any differences in meaning.

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The question for trespassing is whether the trespasser has been adequately notified of the possession interest that another person has in the property. Although it is legal to evangelize door-to-door without a permit, most jurisdictions will require you to leave promptly if the owner asks you to leave. In the absence of such verbal requests, you have a legally protected interest in engaging in conversation with your neighbors.

Based on the law as I understand it, it is likely that your jurisdiction will recognize a right to proselytize to your neighbors door-to-door regardless of a no trespassing or private property sign. However, for the sake of certainty, here’s a little bit about trespass law. Typically, states have statutes that define what it takes to make a sign “conspicuous” enough to create grounds for prosecution. Such laws include specifications for the thickness of markings and the sign’s distance from the ground. Arkansas statutes have established that a person who enters or remains unlawfully on property has committed trespass, which means that the person must enter or remain in or upon the premises when not licensed or privileged to enter or remain in or upon the premises.

Communication is key. Arkansas law provides that if the property is unimproved and apparently unused, and is not fenced or otherwise “enclosed in a manner designed to exclude an intruder,” the person entering the property does so with license and privilege. Generally, however, if a person unlawfully enters property that has been improved, he has trespassed regardless of a sign on the premises devoid of some religious purpose for his visit.

Thus, there really is not a significant difference between the “No Trespassing” sign and the “Private Property” sign. Both would communicate to any potential intruder that the property he is about to enter is presently being possessed by another person and thus would likely be sufficient to provide grounds for claiming notice in court if a property owner should choose to bring a suit.

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To elaborate a bit on Cyote's answer, signage serves two purposes. One is that in the wild, it (along with fences) demarcates private property from public property. The other is that it signals an owner's intent: "Please close the gate" or "Welcome" indicates something completely different from "No Trespassing" or "Private Property". In terms of being reasonably interpretable as a sign of the owners intent, "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signal the exact same intent. You do not have a right to trespass, period. However, the law typically admits of defenses to a trespassing charge, which in Washington state (RCW 9A.52.090(3)) says that

The actor reasonably believed that the owner of the premises, or other person empowered to license access thereto, would have licensed him or her to enter or remain

Without a sign, it might be reasonable to believe that the owner of a premise would permit your entry onto their property. With such a sign, it is not reasonable to believe that the owner would nevertheless welcome your visit. What in the world could be the intention behind such a sign, if it were not to signal that trespassers are not allowed? This defense is what allows evangelists and salesmen to come up to the door.

  • In the state of NH, you post proper "No trespassing" signs if you want to be able to have people arrested for entering (absent an enclosure or a specific order to a person). You post "Private property" if you simply want visitors to be aware that restrictions may apply, were they to inquire as to their use of or entry to such property, as opposed to a parcel that is "open to the public". For instance, motorized ATV riders need written permission (by statute) to ride on someone else's private property, yet random hikers might not. – Upnorth Aug 20 '17 at 5:05
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To add one thing to the mix to consider is a situation as exists in our very large rural HOA, which is backed up to BLM and other public lands. The rule for property owners here (Central Oregon), is that if your property, or part of it, is legally designated as "Community Access Property", then the property owner must allow access across that portion of their property. Out here in our area, it is impossible to know what is private property and what is public lands if there is no fence or other obvious delineation. I own 2 acres; the upper acre is private property (not community access), the lower acre is community access. My upper acre is fenced; I cannot legally fence the lower acre (to be accurate, I cannot impede community access across that acre). To let people know that it is private property (so they can't do whatever they want to on or with the property) rather than public lands, I've put up PRIVATE PROPERTY signage, with addendum signage stipulating it is community access on the established foot trail, that users may pass but at their own risk; I mention the usual no camping, no fires, no smoking, no vandalism, no littering, no modification of property, no motorized vehicles, no hunting, no trapping, no target shooting, no cutting of wood, and warning about rattlesnakes, cougars, & coyotes. But I cannot legally post "No Trespassing" or "Keep Out". I did put an invitation to enjoy the walk & the view but remain on the foot trail. And I pray that will protect me from the potential individual(s) with a disproportionate sense of entitlement.

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Going onto anyone's property when you are unknown to them is an unwise move, especially if you are not from the area.

I know people who are armed and will happily shoot intruders and they have no sign whatsoever on their property. I know of one case where some stranger walked up to some guy's door and he got frightened and shot them through the door (yes, bullets go through doors).

Legally speaking, a homeowner can shoot anybody or anything on their property that has intruded onto their property and seems to present a threat. Obviously, there are some pretty paranoid people out there so what "seems to be a threat" can have a low threshold for those people.

Juries routinely find property owners innocent when brought to trial for killing somebody who has intruded onto their property. Here's an example: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/nev-man-not-guilty-deadly-shooting-trespassers-article-1.2240934

  • Thanks for your concern. In my area this has never been a problem. – 4castle Jan 4 '17 at 0:00
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    The article you linked is completely different from shooting someone who knocks on your front door! I doubt that would be legal most anywhere (though that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't happen of course). – Kat Jan 4 '17 at 4:30
  • Even in states where a homeowner has the benefit of the rebuttable presumption of imminent threat by intruders in their dwelling, i.e., when justifying application of lethal force, they may still have the burden of proving the intrusion was unlawful and violent. – Upnorth Aug 20 '17 at 5:09

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