Public land hunters across the country celebrated Friday as a jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict in the high-profile case of four Missourians charged with breaking and entering in Wyoming last fall.
That means that those four men in your particular situation did not commit any crime. It doesn’t mean corner crossing is now suddenly legal. However, a separate civil lawsuit still underway could address some of the legal underpinnings of the practice. The four hunters also received a summons to reappear in the same court in June for similar charges related to crossing the same corner in 2020.
In October 2021, Brad Cape, John Slowensky, Zachary Smith, and Phillip Yeomans built and deployed a custom stepladder to “cross corners” from one parcel of public land to another where squares meet diagonally in a checkerboard layout. chess, without setting foot on private land on either side. The owner of the adjacent private parcels, Fred Eshelman, insisted that these men had entered his private airspace without permission. Through his ranch manager, he demanded that the local police charge them with trespassing, which a ranger and a sheriff’s deputy initially refused, saying the hunters had done nothing wrong.
In the three-day post-trial last week, Carbon County Prosecutor Ashley Mayfield Davis demonstrated the legal theory of private airspace and the infinitely thin corners of the chessboard with LEGO-style blocks.
“The law is that you own the airspace,” he said in closing arguments, according to WyoFile. “Land ownership isn’t just the land, it’s the airspace above.”
None of the three women or three men on the jury were ultimately swayed by that claim. However, the finding that these hunters did not commit criminal trespassing, or trespassing to hunt, does not alter the legality of corner crossing in Wyoming or anywhere else. The criminal trial examined only the details of the incident in question and did not set a judicial precedent. The practice of corner crossing is still considered de facto illegal in most Western states.
The state legislature also recently selected this item as an interim intersessional item, suggesting that new bills to address the trespass law may be imminent. No law in any western state or federal government directly addresses the practice of crossing corners. All legal understanding has been based on judicial and agency opinions, leading to decades of uncertainty.
the road ahead
A separate civil lawsuit filed by Eshelman against the hunters was transferred from state to federal court. It remains possible that a favorable ruling in that case will address the underlying legal issues surrounding private control of airspace, as well as the legality of blocking land they own as citizens from the American public. Lawyers for the defendants have suggested they will argue that the Unlawful Enclosure Act of 1885 makes it illegal to prevent anyone from lawfully accessing public land.
A civil lawsuit for trespassing must show nominal damages from the event in question. This leaves many to wonder how the shoulders of Missourians, who briefly passed through the outer inches of the millionaire’s 20,000-acre ranch, could have physically or financially harmed him, even if the nominal damage standard does not require compliance. no substantive loss or impact. . That said, the event could have weakened his control of the thousands of acres of federal public land to which he claims exclusive access. The judge may choose to simply dismiss the case based on that fact.
The possibility of lasting legal precedent will depend largely on whether Wyoming District Judge Scott Skavdahl digs deeper into the issue of whether the Illegal Premises Act of 1885 provides for access to public land through the corner crossing, according to David Willms, a Wyoming legal expert and former adviser to the governor.
“Could this set a precedent? It’s possible. There may be a decision that crossing the corner is legal or illegal. It is also possible that the decision is much narrower. The judge may dismiss the landlord’s case for other reasons,” Willms told MeatEater. “It’s very hard to predict because there are so many possible outcomes.”
That bleak future makes it hard for some observers to maintain even cautious optimism, though others remain hopeful. No dates have yet been set for that procedure.
However, another legal challenge has been filed against the hunters. According to sources in the courtroom, during jury selection, the judge went out for a conference with the lawyers. While they were away, a sheriff’s deputy came in and served the hunters with summonses to reappear in court on June 6 in reference to their crossing the same corner in 2020, the year before, an act for which they had not been charged. previously. The details of that situation are likely to vary enough to avoid a double jeopardy and give the prosecutor another opportunity to test these legal theories and, according to some, attack these four men and others who would follow them.
Although a firm conclusion to this issue may take months or possibly years, the cases have already drawn much attention and advocacy from hunters, fishermen and other Americans who value public lands. The Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers organized a GoFundMe campaign to help cover hunters’ legal fees and quickly raised more than $70,000. The closely watched legal combat has rekindled a long-dormant desire among sportspeople to set foot on the vast acres of public land just a long stride out of their reach. OnXmaps recently completed and released a report saying that the western United States contains 8.3 million acres of public land that would be open to hunting if corner crossing became definitively legal. The four Missouri hunters now serve as representatives of thousands of people, virtual martyrs to this cause.
Ryan Semerad, attorney for defendant Phillip Yeomans, told MeatEater that the war is not over, but he is very happy to have won this battle.
“Today, the six-person jury returned an impartial, fair and unanimous verdict that my client, Phillip Yeomans, and his friends, Bradley Cape, John Slowensky and Zachary Smith did not commit the crimes of criminal trespass or trespass to hunt under the law of Wyoming when they accessed public land on the chessboard,” Semerad said. “This decision is not a precedent, but it is quite reflective of the good faith with which these men hunted lawfully and knowingly on public lands. There is still more work to be done for these men and to ensure public access to public lands. But this verdict was an essential first step in restoring access to the public domain to the public. Justice has been served.”
Featured image via Captured Creative.