Trespassing laws have long been used to cite the unhoused lingering on a sidewalk or others sitting under building eaves and stairways.
But with the Black Lives Matter protests filling the streets of downtown and a recent incident at Eugene Weekly, some confusion has arisen around Eugene’s trespassing laws, which give the Eugene Police Department consent to address trespassers without contacting the owners first.
This program, called the Trespass Letters of Consent, was invoked on Sunday night, May 31, when a group of protesters stood on the corner on 8th and Mill in downtown Eugene, spread out along the sidewalk. A cluster of Eugene police cars blocked off Coburg Road, telling the gathering they needed to leave the property.
“This property has a trespass letter of consent on file with the police department of the city of Eugene. Anyone on Whole Food’s property is trespassing and is subject to arrest,” an officer’s voice boomed through the loudspeaker of the armored Bearcat.
Harlow Meno, program coordinator, says the letter of consent was created originally for businesses or owners of an undeveloped lot, for example.
“They can see that a sign is posted and then have dispatch check and see if it is in the program,” he explains, adding it applies to property also. Meno has been with the department for 25 years and says the program has been around for at least that long.
He says it was created after people continually parked on an empty lot on Willamette Street and threw their garbage everywhere. This program allowed officers to control the lot.
“This allowed the officer to be an agent of the business,” Meno says.
Earlier that week, EW had its own incident, but was not signed up for the Trespass Letters of Consent program and was unable to invoke police action. Distribution Manager Trey Longstreth showed up at the building at 4 am to send drivers on their way to deliver the week’s newspapers. Instead, he saw the police had been called.
He says an individual had taken stacks of papers and thrown them all around the driveway and was also throwing random items into neighboring garbage and recycling cans. When the situation was explained to the two Eugene police officers, Longstreth was told they couldn’t press charges unless EW was signed up for a city-wide trespassing program.
Longstreth was confused, he says, because not only was the trespasser still around on the street, but there was also vandalism of the papers. A total of 400 papers were destroyed. When he mentioned this to the EPD they responded that it was a “free” paper. Longstreth adds that he also told the woman to leave, while the officers watched.
After a white surpremacist videoed himself burning a stack of Weeklys a few years ago and EPD also pointed to the paper being “free,” EW added language to the masthead stating the first five papers are free but after that they are $1. This means in addition to printing costs, advertising dollars and staff time, $395 of printed papers were destroyed.
“In order for a charge of trespass to be filed, the property owner needs to either have filed a “no-trespassing letter” with the city, or be willing to press charges,” says EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin.
In addition to filling out the forms online, business owners also have to post two “no trespassing” signs around the property. Then, if an officer drives by a business and sees someone on the property off hours, they can check if the building is registered with the program, and if so, tell the trespasser to move along, or cite them if necessary. In the case of the protesters, EPD said they would be arrested for trespassing.
According to the city code someone commits trespassing when they “enter or remain unlawfully in a dwelling.” And a person commits criminal mischief in the third degree “if, with intent to cause substantial inconvenience to the owner or to another person, and having no right to do so… the person tampers or interferes with property of another.”
Without the trespass program and the EW business “owner” present, the officers present explained to Longstreth that there wasn’t much they could do. Then they left.
If someone were to trespass or deface a neighboring business who was not a part of the program, EPD could not take action unless the owner was there, McLaughlin says. “All citations are contingent upon consent from the property owner,” McLaughlin says.
Though the program began for businesses, Meno says the city is looking into having an alternate application for residents, since some homeowners have signed up for the program in the past. He says that it would look different since houses and apartments don’t have “hours of operation” and could involve a neighbor reporting an incident before the police come to check it out.