The Complications of Trespassing, Premise Liability, and Florida Law

This month, Starbucks again found itself embroiled in controversy. But this time, it wasn’t over Christmas cup designs or colorful drinks. Instead, it was over a much more serious topic: trespassing.

The incident occurred in early March at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Two men, who were black, were waiting for a friend inside the store when an employee called 911 to accuse the men of trespassing. When police arrived, the men were handcuffed and arrested.

The men were released from police custody a few hours later and no charges were filed. Still, the racial implications left many with a bad taste in their mouths about Starbucks. The incident has lead to protests, calls for boycotts, and more fuel to the conversation about bias and discrimination. The CEO of Starbucks has apologized, and staff members will undergo training about racial bias and discrimination.

In this situation, trespassing was not the biggest issue at the heart of the conflict. Still, it raises some questions about trespassing, just like it raises questions about racial issues in America. What constitutes trespassing? Is it legal to kick someone out of a restaurant, store, or other area?

Defining Trespassing

If someone is trespassing, it means they are entering someone else’s land or property without that person’s permission. For example, if someone sneaks into their neighbor’s backyard to steal oranges from their tree, that is trespassing. Trespassing also occurs when someone refuses to leave someone else’s land or property. A situation in which a patron enters a store and then refuses to leave falls under this type of trespassing.

In Florida, trespassing is a second degree misdemeanor. It may be punishable by jail time, probation, or fines. If someone has a weapon while trespassing, it becomes a third degree misdemeanor, with harsher punishments. And if someone is committing an additional crime, like vandalism or theft, while trespassing, the punishment will reflect that.

In an instance where someone jumps their neighbor’s fence, it’s clear that the person is trespassing. Other times, it can be more difficult to determine if someone was trespassing. If someone is waiting at a store or restaurant, like the men in the Pennsylvania Starbucks, are they really trespassing?

The Rights of Property Owners

Most states have laws that allow restaurant and shop owners to ask someone to leave the premises if they are damaging the property, injuring others, or simply disrupting business. This helps shop owners protect their patrons and their property while ensuring that their business runs smoothly. For example, if a group is staying at a restaurant long after they have finished eating, a restaurant owner might be within their rights to ask them to leave. For smaller stores and restaurants in high-traffic areas, asking lingering patrons to leave can be an essential part of their business, as they need to keep their property filled with paying people. Many times, it’s not that they have a problem with the patrons—they just want to keep things moving along.

However, problems arise when this policy is not imposed on all parties. If a store asks a black patron to leave the premises but allows a white customer to stay without buying anything, or kicks out of group of teenagers but not a group of adults, it may be an issue of discrimination. So in many cases, a store can ask a patron to leave—but they have to use the same policies for all patrons, not just those they perceive in a negative light.

Protection for Trespassers

Just like property owners have a duty to fairly enforce their policies, they also have a duty to keep their visitors and patrons safe—even those who aren’t supposed to be there. If a property owner knows that people are likely to trespass on their property, they might have a duty to make sure they give reasonable warnings about factors that may cause injury. For example, if the property owner has an aggressive dog or electric fence to deter trespassers, they should make the danger reasonably known. This generally only applies to artificial conditions that the owner has created or maintained to deter trespassers. If a property owners sets out to cause intentional harm to a trespasser, they might be liable for any injuries.

A property owner also has a special duty toward children who are trespassing on their property. If an owner knows or should reasonably know that children are likely to come onto the property—for example, if they have a pool, trampoline, or something else that is likely to entice children—they should give a warning of any dangerous conditions that might cause bodily injuries. This is the “attractive nuisance” doctrine.

It might seem simple to determine if someone is trespassing, but it is actually very complicated. And as the incident at Starbucks proves, it can become even more complicated when factors like race and bias play a role. Whether you’re a property owner or a patron, know your rights about trespassing.

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The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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