Legalities: Part 1 - Trespassing

The legal aspect of urban exploration is a topic that is often discussed and hotly debated. One of the most common questions for people new to the hobby is what their legal obligations are, and what their legal rights are.

The answer to both questions is the same... it depends.

The law varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I'd like to begin this discussion by stating that I'm not a lawyer, and this article is informational only. It is in no way intended to be a legal guide, or a replacement for a good lawyer.

That being said, one must first understand that in many cases, the act of entering an abandoned building without the express permission of the owner is generally considered trespassing. Some people believe that if there is no "No Trespassing" sign, that means everything's fine and legal. Not so in many jurisdictions.

Because I live in Ontario, I'll use Ontario's laws as my example. If you're from Ontario, or perhaps just interested, you can read it for yourself here.

Let's look at the section specifically defining trespassing in Ontario.

  • Every person who is not acting under a right or authority conferred by law and who,
    (a) without the express permission of the occupier, the proof of which rests on the defendant,
    (i) enters on premises when entry is prohibited under this Act, or
    (ii) engages in an activity on premises when the activity is prohibited under this Act; or
    (b) does not leave the premises immediately after he or she is directed to do so by the occupier of the premises or a person authorized by the occupier,
    is guilty of an offence and on conviction is liable to a fine of not more than $2,000.

So, in order to prove that you're not trespassing, you have the burden of proof that you were given permission to enter the property. Fairly simple, really.

Now, how do we know where we shouldn't go? That too is outlined in the law.

  • Entry on premises may be prohibited by notice to that effect and entry is prohibited without any notice on premises,
    (a) that is a garden, field or other land that is under cultivation, including a lawn, orchard, vineyard and premises on which trees have been planted and have not attained an average height of more than two metres and woodlots on land used primarily for agricultural purposes; or
    (b) that is enclosed in a manner that indicates the occupier’s intention to keep persons off the premises or to keep animals on the premises.
  • There is a presumption that access for lawful purposes to the door of a building on premises by a means apparently provided and used for the purpose of access is not prohibited.

So, in Ontario, a sign isn't necessary. Any indication that the property is owned, tended, etc. is sufficient to warn you that you shouldn't be there without permission.

So how do you get caught? Can the property owner do anything to you? Can they detain you? All very important questions, also outlined by the law.

  • A police officer, or the occupier of premises, or a person authorized by the occupier may arrest without warrant any person he or she believes on reasonable and probable grounds to be on the premises in contravention.

Therefore, a citizen's arrest is a legal option. You must remain there until your custody is transferred to a police officer upon arrival.

I also want to point out that a trespassing charge is among the least of your worries, and there are other factors you should also consider. For example, as I mention in the section on equipment, don't bring anything that the police might consider a tool or a weapon. All that's going to do is change your charge from a simple fine to something much worse like break and enter. For the same reason, I highly recommend you leave everything as you found it. Don't damage anything because the property owner can sue you for that. Also, if you're caught with any items you've taken from the abandonment, you're now in possession of stolen property.

Also, consider the time of day that you go. While some might prefer the cover of darkness for some abandonments, you should remember that you can be charged with "Prowl by Night". Essentially this infers that you're expressly using the darkness to hide your intentionally wrong actions. This makes things much worse.

In conclusion, I obviously can't tell you what you should or shouldn't do. You really need to look at your local laws, and make the decision for yourself. Ideally, one should always attempt to locate the property owner, and gain permission before entering any abandoned building.

**UPDATE - February 21, 2009 - After researching the various trespass legislation of each province in Canada, it would appear that they are all largely similar. The laws for Ontario, as outlined above, appear to be representative of the other provinces as well.