How to plead not guilty for trespassing?
June 10, 2012 10:29 PM   Subscribe

Advice on how to plead not guilty for trespassing (in court)?


Thanks in advance for any advice or information you can offer.

I received a ticket for trespassing a few months ago, and have a court date coming up on Monday. I am seeking advice on how, if at all possible, to get off without a fine or community service (or worse).

Basically, the situation is as follows: there is a section of industrially-zoned waterfront in Greenpoint, the part of Brooklyn where I live. A lot of it is abandoned and in disrepair (falling-down fences, garbage and debris, etc.) and a lot of people—myself included—have taken to hanging out there and watching the sunset or whatever.

One afternoon, a friend and I were hanging out in an area that is accessed by passing through a fairly large hole in a chain-link fence. This was somewhere I had been before, and I see people there all the time. It had never occurred to me that it was trespassing (though in hindsight it seems obvious) until two policemen pulled up and beckoned us over...with a siren. We both got tickets for trespassing with court dates already listed. It was pretty undramatic, but the cops seemed very uninterested in letting us off with a warning, even though we were polite and had just been soberly and quietly hanging out. I pled not guilty on mine, and received a letter saying I still needed to show up in court. So here I am, seeking advice on how to get off the hook.

Possibly relevant information:

— There wasn't a "No Trespassing" sign posted
— In fact, there was a sign that said "No Swimming", among other things, posted inside the fenced-off area where we were (potentially this could be leveraged as an indication that the area wasn't totally off-limits?)
— The fence through which we passed is in pretty sketchy condition, and therefore (possibly) ambiguous as a marker of something off limits. A few yards over, it's completely folded over and falling down into the water. Basically, it's no fortress... and there's no barbed wire. When we expressed confusion at the fact we were trespassing, the cops said "You passed through a fence...the fence means you are supposed to stay out" in response.
— As I said, people hang out here all the time (though I am not sure that helps my case)
— I have a clean record, but I'm not an American citizen (I'm Canadian, here on a student visa)
— I was reading up on trespassing law, and apparently "A person is guilty of trespass when he knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in or upon premises." (here) I am wondering whether I can somehow persuade them that I wasn't aware I was trespassing, and therefore be not guilty?

Anyway, again, any advice you can offer is much appreciated. Ideally, I'd like to get off the hook entirely, but a fine wouldn't be the end of the world. Some sort of misdemeanor or whatever on my record might be a bigger problem.

Thanks in advance!
posted by WStraub to Law & Government (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, and I just wanted to clarify that my court date is on June 18, not tomorrow. Leaves a little more time for answering!
posted by WStraub at 10:34 PM on June 10, 2012

Do you know under what conditions your student visa can be revoked? Find out, from an authoritative source.

You should be looking for a lawyer, licensed in your area, for answers about what to say in court. Maybe your school offers a way to get low-cost legal help from someone at an affiliated law school?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:44 PM on June 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not your lawyer. This is not legal advice.

Your question would be run-of-the-mill (but still a good idea to take to a defense lawyer) if not for the non-US citizen hook ... as it is, you need to proceed with extreme caution because there are immigration consequences for all sorts of criminal and quasi-criminal matters, including (in some cases) crimes treated as violations or fine-only dispositions.

I know this because I'm a criminal defense lawyer in Oregon, and I have an obligation to my clients to advice them of the immigration consequences of plea bargains. New York lawyers will have the same obligations, thanks to the US Supreme Court's decision to turn all criminal defense attorneys into immigration attorneys.

Anyway, you need to talk to a lawyer. If you can't afford one, ask for a court-appointed attorney. If the judge gives you a hard time and says jail isn't a consequence, you tell him you want an attorney. If you aren't ineligible or are not granted an attorney, you need to spend a few hundred or a few thousand bucks to make sure you do this the right way.
posted by Happydaz at 10:47 PM on June 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Thanks for the information. I am glad to know this now, as opposed to just showing up in court and hoping for the best (my previous plan).

I'm on an F-1 visa, and a quick google reveals this list of possible reasons for having my visa revoked, which says that it is incomplete and that I should contact my school for more information. Which I will do tomorrow morning. I will also ask them about a student legal aid clinic or something of the sort.

Just to be clear—because I am woefully inexperienced with this—a court-appointed attorney is something that I would ask for on the day of my court date, in court?

Also, um, in terms of choosing a defense lawyer... this is naive, but... do I just go to Google or (gulp) Yelp to find someone? I don't really know any people here who aren't my age, who might have more experience with this kind of thing.

Anyway, thanks again for this information.
posted by WStraub at 11:07 PM on June 10, 2012

One more thing: this list (from the International Students' Office at my school) about how to maintain my visa status doesn't mention anything about criminal activity. Which is somewhat heartening. Though I guess the bottom line is, I still need to talk to a lawyer.
posted by WStraub at 11:12 PM on June 10, 2012

(I'm no lawyer; I just know that student visas can come with unexpected complicated requirements and you want to take this kind of thing seriously, not hope for the best.)

Here is some general information about how to find a lawyer on the Mefi wiki. It suggests looking up the state bar association and calling their referral service.

You might also ask if your school's international students office has immigration lawyers they have worked with - getting in touch with one of them might be a good first step since you know they will at least be able to tell you about the visa consequences.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:25 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Check with your college and see if they have a legal aid office. Most do.
posted by lee at 2:08 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get a lawyer or go to the college legal aid office NOW, TODAY.

Most of what you've written is smokescreen: so what if other people go there, you were the one who got the ticket. (For all you know, so have other folks!) A 'no swimming' sign means 'no swimming', not 'but other stuff is allowed.' You were quietly enjoying the sunset... whoopee. You knowingly went into a fenced-off area (no matter the condition of that fence), and fences usually indicate 'keep out, do not pass.' You were sober and polite --- good move, but doesn't negate the rest.

The ONLY thing that really matters is that you got a ticket for tresspassing, and you're on a student visa. Get legal advice pronto!
posted by easily confused at 4:12 AM on June 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

(I am not a lawyer.)

If it were just normal trespassing, you wouldn't have a court date and you could just pay a ticket. But in New York, it becomes criminal trespass if the property "is fenced or otherwise enclosed in a manner designed to exclude intruders". Yes, people trespass all the time in New York and usually the cops let them off with a warning, but sometimes they don't. One of the risks.

On the bright side, plenty of F-1 students get misdemeanors and don't get kicked out of school or the country. So you will probably be fine.

Anyway, get a lawyer.
posted by goingonit at 5:37 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone. I am incredibly glad I asked about this. The internet saves the day (again).
posted by WStraub at 6:23 AM on June 11, 2012

i am not a lawyer, and this is a gross oversimplification of the concept, but just to be a bit more (non) helpful: from what i understand about trespass, the "intent" portion is that you intentionally were on that piece of land, and didn't have the owner's permission, and not that you intentionally knew you were trespassing. so if i put a foot on my neighbor's unfenced yard, even if i don't realize it was on his yard, that is still trespassing. but if someone beat me up and tossed me into my neighbor's bushes, that's a good case that I was not trespassing. my guess is you'll get off with a fine and no criminal or visa repercussions, but you still need to talk to student legal services and make sure all angles are covered.
posted by camdan at 10:31 AM on June 11, 2012

I am wondering whether I can somehow persuade them that I wasn't aware I was trespassing

IANAL, but... Probably not. Judges have seen it all, believe me, and you'll get a serious fight from the prosecutor and potentially witness testimony from the cop. Given you're effectively selecting a bench trial (I can't imagine a jury trial is an option for this offense, but stranger things are true), your best bet is essentially a puppy-dog defense. Sorry, you were just there for the sunset, didn't mean any harm, never do it again .... Maybe your strongest point here would be where you were and what you were doing when the cops showed up. Nobody was carrying anything that could be construed as burglary tools, right? Nobody was messing around in the buildings? Nobody else scattered like crazy?

Of course, you could be lucky and have the charge dismissed when the police officer doesn't show. But directly challenging his testimony is almost always going to be a loser. Leveraging it, though, to your own advantage....

I'd check with the lawyers first on this one, but it's also possible that it would have been strategically better just to pay the ticket. Assuming it's a municipal/ordinance type of offense and not constitutionally classified as a crime....
posted by dhartung at 1:00 PM on June 11, 2012

Thanks for the info.

dhartung, yeah, we didn't have any tools or anything—there was already a huge hole in the fence that we walked through. My friend was eating a yogurt. We were just chatting. That kind of thing.

Also, I have now learned that I wrongly referred to my summons as a "ticket"—there was no ticket, it was just a summons right off the bat. So getting off with just a fine and no court date was never an option.

Anyway, I'm in the process of procuring legal help. Thanks again for weighing in.
posted by WStraub at 3:26 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was also charged with trespassing (for being in a public park after dark). Get a lawyer. This could effect any security clearance you may need in the future.
posted by jmd97 at 7:11 PM on June 11, 2012

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