Public land hunters across the country celebrated Friday as a jury quickly delivered a not-guilty verdict in the high-profile case of four Missourians charged with trespassing in Wyoming last fall.
That means those four men in their particular situation did not commit a crime. It does not mean that corner crossing is now suddenly legal. However, a separate civil lawsuit still underway could potentially address some of the legal underpinnings of the practice. The four hunters were also served a summons to reappear in the same court in June on similar charges related to crossing the same corner in 2020.
In October 2021, Brad Cape, John Slowensky, Zachary Smith, and Phillip Yeomans built and deployed a custom step ladder to “corner cross” from one parcel of public land to another where the squares touch diagonally in a checkerboard layout, without stepping foot on the private land on either side. The owner of the adjacent private parcels, Fred Eshelman, insisted that these men had entered his private airspace without permission. Through his ranch manager, he demanded that local law enforcement charge them with trespassing—which a game warden and a sheriff deputy initially declined to do, saying the hunters had done nothing wrong.
In the subsequent three-day trial last week, Carbon County Prosecutor Ashley Mayfield Davis demonstrated the legal theory of private airspace and infinitely thin checkerboard corners with LEGO-style blocks.
“The law is you own the airspace,” she said in closing arguments, according to WyoFile. “Land ownership is not just the dirt, it’s the airspace above.”
None of the three women or three men on the jury were ultimately persuaded by that claim. However, the finding that these hunters did not commit criminal trespass, or trespass to hunt, does not alter the legality of corner crossing in Wyoming or elsewhere. The criminal trial examined only the specifics of the incident in question and does not set a judicial precedent. The practice of corner crossing is still considered de facto illegal in most Western states.
The state’s legislature has also recently selected this issue as an interim topic between sessions, suggesting that new bills to address trespass law may be imminent. No laws in no Western states or the federal government directly address the practice of corner crossing. The entire legal understanding has been based on judicial and agency opinions, leading to decades of uncertainty.
The Road Ahead A separate civil lawsuit brought by Eshelman against the hunters was transferred from state to federal court. It remains possible a favorable ruling on that case could address the underlying legal questions surrounding private control of the airspace as well as the legality of blocking the American public from lands they own as citizens. Attorneys for the defendants have suggested they will argue that the Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885 makes it illegal to prevent anyone from otherwise lawfully accessing public land.
A civil trespass suit must show nominal damage from the event in question. This leaves many to wonder how the Missourians’ shoulders passing briefly through the outer inches of the millionaire’s 20,000-acre ranch could have physically or financially harmed him, even if the standard for nominal damage doesn't require any substantive loss or impact to be met. With that said, the event might have weakened his control of the thousands of acres of federal public lands he claims exclusive access into. The judge may choose to simply dismiss the case based on that reality.
The possibility of a lasting legal precedent will depend largely on whether Wyoming District Chief Judge Scott Skavdahl digs deeply into the issue of whether the Unlawful Enclosures Act of 1885 contemplates access to public land via corner crossing, according to David Willms, a Wyoming legal expert and former advisor to the governor.
“Could this set a precedent? It’s possible. It’s possible there could be a decision saying corner crossing is either legal or illegal. It’s also possible the decision will be far narrower. It’s possible the judge dismisses the landowner’s case on other grounds,” Willms told MeatEater. “It’s so hard to predict because there are so many possible outcomes.”
That obscure future makes it hard for some observers to maintain even cautious optimism, though others remain hopeful. No dates have yet been set for that proceeding.
However, yet another legal challenge has been leveled against the hunters. According to sources in the room, during jury selection, the judge walked out for a conference with the attorneys. While they were away, a sheriff’s deputy came in and handed the hunters summons to reappear in the court on June 6 in reference to them crossing the same corner in 2020, the year before, an act for which they were not previously charged. The specifics of that situation likely vary enough to avoid double jeopardy and provide the prosecutor yet another chance to test these legal theories and, some say, attack these four men and others who would follow them.
Destination Uncertain Though a firm conclusion to this issue may be months or likely years away, the cases have already drawn a great deal of attention and advocacy from hunters, anglers, and other Americans who value public lands. The Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers organized a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the hunters’ legal fees, and it quickly raised more than $70,000. The closely watched legal sparring has reanimated a long-simmering desire among sportsmen to step foot on the vast acres of public lands that sit just one long step out of reach. OnXmaps recently completed and released a report that says the Western United States contains 8.3 million acres of public lands that would be open to hunting if corner crossing were to become definitively legal. The four hunters from Missouri now serve as proxies for thousands of others, virtual martyrs for this cause.
Ryan Semerad, attorney for defendant Phillip Yeomans, told MeatEater that the war is not over, but he’s very happy to have won this battle.
“Today, the six-person jury returned a fair, just, and unanimous verdict that my client, Phillip Yeomans, and his friends, Bradley Cape, John Slowensky, and Zachary Smith did not commit the crimes of criminal trespass or trespass to hunt under Wyoming law when they accessed public lands in the checkerboard,” Semerad said. “This decision is not precedent, but it fairly reflects the good faith in which these men lawfully and conscientiously hunted public land. There is more work yet to be done for these men and to ensure public access to public lands. But this verdict was an essential first step to restoring access to the public domain to the public. Justice has been served.”
Feature image via Captured Creative.