CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Senate is wrestling with how to improve two state laws the Legislature enacted last year that sought to make it illegal to trespass to collect data.
Last year’s laws prohibited taking photos or gathering data while trespassing on open land.
A coalition of environmental, animal rights and other groups challenged the laws on constitutional grounds, saying they would violate their members’ rights to report information to government agencies. They also argued that the laws could prohibit collecting information from public lands.
U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper in December denied the state’s request to dismiss the coalition’s lawsuit. In his ruling, he said he has serious concerns and questions about the constitutionality of the state laws.
The Wyoming Senate last week defeated a bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, that would have repealed last year’s laws outright.
On Tuesday, the Senate gave preliminary approval to two other bills that would revise the laws by removing the reference to open land and specifying that the bills would apply to private land. However, some lawmakers still expressed concern whether the new bills would fix problems with the existing laws.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, sponsored the two bills to reform the trespass laws. One of the laws enacted last year established criminal penalties for violators while the other spelled out how landowners could press a civil action against anyone who collected data on their lands without permission.
“A lot of the confusion associated with this legislation we passed last year revolved around the issue of the definition of ‘open land,’ and whether that actually captured federal lands, or strictly private lands,” Hicks said. He proposed amendments to remove the term “open,” from the existing laws.
Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, warned Hicks that other language in his proposed amendment appeared to try to criminalize actions on public lands if a person had to cross private lands to get there.
“When you’re looking at criminal conduct, I don’t care what it is, you have to look at your bill and see whether it captures otherwise legal conduct,” said Nicholas, a lawyer. “If your bill, in any form, criminalizes conduct which is legal, then it’s over-broad and you run the risk that the bill will be stricken because you’ve criminalized what is noncriminal conduct.”
Hicks said he would work on the amendment and bring a new version when the Senate considers the bill again. The Senate gave preliminary approval to both of Hick’s bills, which would need two more votes of approval before they would head to the House.
Speaking after the Senate vote, Rothfuss said he would likely support Hicks’ efforts to improve the laws even though Rothfuss fundamentally disagreed with them.
“I thought it would be best for us to actually repeal it, which would obviate that court case and take us off the hook for what might be a very expensive loss,” Rothfuss said.