The ability to own property is recognized as a basic human right. When someone interferences with another person’s property rights, serious criminal or civil penalties may result.

In civil law, the intentional interference with property rights is an area of tort law. The most common property torts are trespass to land, trespass to chattel, and conversion.

  • Trespass to Land: Trespass to land occurs when a person intentionally causes the physical invasion of another’s land. A plaintiff may sue for trespass to land even if the trespasser did not do any harm. Also, the trespasser has committed a trespass even if she thought that the land was her land or that it was lawful to enter.
  • Tresspass to Chattel: Trespass to chattel involves the intentional interference with the right of possession of personal property. To bring a trespass to chattel claim, the plaintiff must show that there was actual damage or dispossession.
  • Conversion: Conversion is the serious intentional interference with the right of possession of person property. The difference between trespass to chattel and conversion is the degree of possession that the trespasser assumed. If the trespasser merely challenged the right of possession, then there was a trespass to chattel. However, if the trespasser created a "forced sale" of the property to herself, then there was a conversion.

Defenses to the Intentional Interference with Another’s Property Rights

The most common defense to property torts is consent. If the plaintiff gave the alleged trespasser express or implied consent to enter the land or possess the chattel, the alleged trespasser has not committed a trespass. However, the consent must have been effective. The following three elements are necessary ingredients of effective consent:

  • Capacity to consent: The person giving consent must have had the capacity to consent. Mentally incompetent individuals, intoxicated people, and minors generally do not have the capacity to consent.
  • No fraud or false pretenses: The consent must not have been coerced or gained under false or mistaken pretenses.
  • Scope of consent: The alleged trespasser must not exceed the scope of consent.

Another common defense is necessity. Necessity takes place when the trespasser invades the plaintiff’s property because of an emergency. There are two types of necessity: public necessity and private necessity.

  • Public necessity: Public necessity occurs when the trespass was necessary to protect the community. The public necessity defense is a complete bar to recovery.
  • Private necessity: Private necessity occurs when the trespass was necessary to preserve the trespasser’s own interest. This is a limited defense: Under the private necessity defense, the trespasser is not responsible for nominal or punitive damages, but is responsible for any property damage caused by her actions. Also, the plaintiff cannot force the trespasser to exit the land until the emergency is over.

Remedies for Property Torts

The most common remedies for property torts are damages, replevin, ejectment, and injunction.

  • Damages: Damages are based on the damage to the plaintiff from the property tort. They put the plaintiff in the position he or she would have been in had the injury not occurred. There are three types of damages: (1) compensatory damages; (2) nominal damages; and (3) punitive damages.
  • Restitutionary damages: Restitutionary damages are based on the benefit to the trespasser. They prevent the trespasser from being unjustly enriched.
  • Replevin: Through replevin, the plaintiff recovers possession of personal property. In replevin, the sheriff repossesses the property for the plaintiff.
  • Ejectment: Through ejectment, the plaintiff recovers possession of real property. The sheriff ejects the trespasser from the property.

Injunction: In an injunction, the trespasser is ordered (enjoined) to refrain from trespassing. An injunction is only appropriate if damages, replevin, and ejectment are inadequate. Damages may be inadequate if they are too speculative, the injury is irreparable, or the trespasser is insolvent. Replevin and ejectment may be inadequate if the sheriff refuses to act.

Should I Consult a Lawyer?

If someone has intentionally interfered with your property rights, you should consult an experienced property law attorney. Your attorney can evaluate your case and discuss possible remedies.