Legal Dictionary


Legal Definition of trespass


  1. Unlawful interference with another's person, property or rights. Theoretically, all torts are trespasses.

Definition of trespass


    Old French trespas, passage; offense against the law


  • enPR: trĕs'päs", IPA: /ˈtresˌpɑːs/, SAMPA: /"tres%pA:s/


to trespass (third-person singular simple present trespasses, present participle trespassing, simple past and past participle trespassed)

  1. (1455) To enter a property without permission
  2. To commit a sin. Sense peculiar to The Lord's Prayer

    And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Derived terms

  • trespasser


trespass (plural trespasses)

  1. (1290) sin (This sense is peculiar to The Lord's Prayer)

    Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us - The Lord's Prayer. Matthew ch6. v.14, 15

  2. (law) Any of various torts involving interference to another's enjoyment of his property, especially the act of being present on another's land without lawful excuse.

See also


  • Alphagram: aeprssst
  • sparsest

Further reading

Trespass (properly to go beyond, from Lat. trans, "across" + passus, "act of going from place to place"; French outrepasser is from Latin ultra = "beyond" + passus) is a legal concept, which refers to intrusion into another person's property. Trespass to land is a type of trespass, which can cause criminal[1] or a tort liability.[2] In England and Wales, while one can easily run into a notice warning that "trespassers will be prosecuted", it will only bring a civil liability, unless the trespass is aggravated.

There are also torts for trespass to chattels and trespass to the person. They are generally considered as an "intentional tort" but constitute a tort of negligence in Australia and other countries.

Occasionally (outside the law trade) "trespassing" is used to mean "agricultural encroachment" on a sacred or biological reserve area.

Trespass law

Although criminal and civil trespass laws vary from each jurisdiction, the following facets are common:

  • Property owners and their agents (for example, security guards) may only use reasonable force to protect their property. For example, setting booby traps on a property to hurt trespassers and shooting at trespassers are usually forbidden except in extreme circumstances. Several US states, however, preserve to varying degrees the Castle Doctrine, a concept from English common law allowing the use of deadly force against trespassers the break into the home, only. The US state of Texas in particular has especially broad guidelines for the acceptable use of deadly force.[1]
  • Not all persons seeking access to property are trespassers. The law recognizes the rights of persons given express permission to be on the property ("invitees") and persons who have a legal right to be on the property ("licensees") not to be treated as trespassers; for example, a meter reader on the property to read the meter. A police officer seeking to execute a warrant is a licensee. A surveyor studying the land for government use (usually map making). Someone such as a door-to-door salesman or missionary, would be a solicitor and not afforded the invitee exclusion to enter the private portion of the premises, and therefore be a trespasser. In a more recent case, Jehovah's Witnesses refused to get government permits to solicit door-to-door in Stratton, Ohio. In 2002, the case was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of the Jehovah's Witnesses, holding that making it a misdemeanor to engage in door-to-door advocacy without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit violate the first Amendment as it applies to religious proselytizing, anonymous political speech, and the distribution of handbills.[3]
  • Most jurisdictions do not allow "self-help" to remove trespassers. The usual procedure is to ask the trespassing person to leave, then to call law enforcement officials if they do not. As long as the trespasser is not posing an immediate threat, they cannot be removed by force. It is usually illegal to arrest a trespasser and hold them on the property until law enforcement arrives as this defeats the purpose of allowing them to cure the trespass by leaving. This is excepted by US States that have Citizen arrest laws; CA being one. A large exception to this rule are railroads in the United States and Canada, who employ their own police forces to enforce state or provincial trespassing laws. Railroad police have the ability to independently arrest and prosecute trespassers without the approval or assistance of local law enforcement. Furthermore, in many jurisdictions, trespassing on railroad tracks is considered a very severe offense comparable to drunk driving, with severe fines imposed on the trespassers. Some jurisdictions even going so far as to impose fines higher than that of a drunk driving or marijuana possession conviction.
  • A sign warning against trespassing at Mater Dei High School in New Jersey
  • Most, though not all, jurisdictions allow "benevolent trespassing" for extreme situations. For example, if you have a car accident and somebody is injured, you may legally force entry into an empty building to call an ambulance. Similarly, if a structure is burning, one may forcibly enter to rescue a person trapped inside. The law assumes people will make a reasonable effort to notify property owners if possible.
  • Similarly, "Good Samaritan" laws take precedent over property laws where applicable. Civilians are afforded certain protection in emergencies - people cannot generally sue their would-be rescuers for breaking ribs attempting CPR, or damaging property while helping a person in need. Obviously, professionals (EMT, doctors, firefighters, etc.) are held to a higher standard, even when they're not "on the clock."
  • Marking property as private property can be done in a variety of ways. The most obvious way is to post a sign saying "No Trespassing" or "Private Property". However, a continuous fence has the same effect in most places. Many jurisdictions allow the use of markers when fencing would be impractical or expensive. For example, Ontario, Canada allows the use of red paint on landmarks such as trees to mark the boundaries of private property.
  • Property owners may allow some trespasses while excluding others. For example, a sign saying just "No Hunting" could conceivably allow hiking, snowmobiling or bird-watching, but would give notice to hunters that they would be trespassing if they entered onto the property.
  • Trespass is not limited to human beings. For example, the owner of cattle or dogs may be responsible for an animal's trespass in some jurisdictions. Furthermore, by causing an object to enter a property one can commit an act of trespass, whether it be earthworks, flood water, or objects thrown onto the property or allowed to travel onto the property.
  • Although trespass on private property is usually covered by a general provision, specific properties of high concern such as railways, motorways and military property are often covered under different legislation which carries greater penalties. e.g. in England and Wales, trespass is a civil offence, whereas "Trespassing on the Railway" is a criminal offence.

Other legal uses

  • Assault and battery are trespasses to the person and are actionable in tort as such.
  • The unlawful interference with the goods of another is a trespass against his goods and is actionable in tort, usually as conversion or detinue.
  • Actions for breach of contract was developed by the common law courts out of trespass and came to be called trespass on the case.
  • Unauthorized access to a computer system is sometimes considered a form of trespass. Generally in the U.S. these acts are not considered trespasses (see Intel Corp. v. Hamidi).

Wider uses

The term 'trespass' is also used for a transgression in general, such as in the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer.


The front entrance of Whitwell Station, Reepham, UK, displaying some of the anti-trespassing techniques deployed.

There are many methods land owners use to prevent trespassing, usually depending on the terrain, risk, importance (personal, cultural or economic) and size of the property.

Some of the most common preventions are also the most basic, such as barbed wire, warning signs, and fencing. See also physical security.


  1. Dictionary of Real Estate law. Accessed May 28, 2008.
  2. article. Accessed May 28, 2008.
  3. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton - 536 U.S. 150 (2002)


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     warrant
2.     tampering
3.     emtio
4.     amnesty law
5.     magistrates court
6.     lex fori
7.     landed property
8.     lex situs
9.     lex causae
10.     ownership