Lawmakers: Federal court will decide if corner-crossing is trespassing

WYOMING -- Wyoming Judiciary Committee lawmakers agreed Monday that the Legislature should wait for a pending federal court case to run its course before weighing in on corner crossing.

A Carbon County Circuit Court jury last month found four Missouri hunters not guilty of criminal trespass for corner crossing in 2021. But the owner of the ranch neighboring the public land where they hunted filed a separate civil suit that’s now pending in U.S. District Court.

Corner crossing is the act of stepping kitty-corner from one parcel of public property to another — without touching private land — where land ownership is arranged in a checkerboard pattern of alternating public and private property.

The committee listed trespass as its top priority before the next legislative session convenes early in 2023. Despite enormous interest in corner crossing and the conflicts it presents between access to public land and private property rights, the committee believed any effort to address the issue at the state level would be premature.

“It’s not a topic we’re taking up,” committee co-chairman Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said at the meeting in Lander.

The not-guilty verdict in the trespass case under Wyoming law does not set a precedent, attorneys have said, but the federal case could. A federal decision could have implications for access to 8.3 million acres of public land in the West — 2.44 million acres in Wyoming alone — that are considered “corner-locked” by any interpretation that corner crossing is illegal.

Apparently, no laws — federal or state — today explicitly allow or prohibit corner crossing. Because of the pending federal case, which would have implications for any Wyoming law regarding corner crossing, the state should keep its powder dry, Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, suggested.

He received “thousands of emails” last legislative session when he proposed a bill that, although not intended to address corner crossing, could have impacted trespass enforcement of the practice, he said.

“I don’t think that’s something we [as a Legislature] can fix,” he said of the corner-crossing gray area. “I think the courts are going to have to decide that … whether it’s a takings case or prohibiting access to federal lands, or public lands, etc.”

One committee member suggested Wyoming stake out its position for the federal court and pass a corner crossing law.

“Would it not be beneficial for there to be statutory language in place that says where the Legislature comes down on this issue, one side or the [other]?” Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, asked the committee.

That might not be helpful, Crago said.

“Unconstitutional is unconstitutional,” Crago said of a federal court decision that will be made regardless of state law. “I think we’ll get an answer from our federal court here shortly … a year from now most likely.”

In the overall scheme of things, “that’s pretty quick” he said. “I would say we wait and see what the court decides, and then maybe move forward.”

Last session Crago proposed a measure he said was designed to help stop trespassing to collect shed antlers in cases where trespassers found that paying a fine was tolerable considering the bounty the antlers would bring. He agreed his wording in the bill was flawed. The Legislature did not act on it.

Crago will work with the Legislative Service Office on a new draft measure with clearer language, the committee agreed.

Meantime committee members asked for several draft bills to address the use of drones relating to trespass, security at jails and prisons, voyeurism and other topics. Co-chairman Olsen separated the issues as best he could during the three-hour session.

“I think that’s more helpful for the public listening — and bless the hearts of our journalists who are trying to report on this,” he said of the committee’s agenda. “If we’re talking about corner crossing one second and then a minute later, we’re talking about drones, I don’t want any of that to be confused on what the Legislature is or isn’t talking about or is or isn’t doing.”

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