Paul Lefever was fixing flat tires on his wagons on March 2, 2013, when he heard the buzz of dirt bikes that he said was all too familiar on the 18 acres he farmed near Mountville, Pa.
“I had trouble for years. Different times we’d catch them, so to speak, in the act,” Lefever said.
The boys drove through the fields and woods on the land, setting up plywood ramps and tearing through planted crops, Lefever said.
“They’d ride right up through the soybeans when the soybeans were 4 feet high,” he said.
Lefever estimates he lost 20 bushels an acre in the years the teens were driving in his fields. When he encountered the youths previously, the boys had sped off before Lefever could talk to them.
This time, when the first dirt biker burst out of the woods right in front of him, Lefever said he was waiting with his unloaded .22 rifle — kept in his truck for shooting groundhogs — leaned against his shoulder. Lefever said he ordered the boy to sit down and wait for the police to come.
While Lefever and the boy waited for the police, two other riders burst out of the woods. Lefever made them sit down and wait for the police too. The boys never removed their helmets, he said.
The boys’ story in court documents is somewhat different. The most important discrepancy: They said Lefever pointed the gun at them, which Lefever denies.
“The gun was more or less for my safety,” he said. “They didn’t respect me before.”
In the end, Lefever was charged with three counts of simple assault. Fearing jail time and the loss of his hunting license, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge this March and was fined $25 plus costs.
The price of the confrontation went far beyond the fine, however. Lefever lost his lease on the land where he had planted corn and soybeans since 1994, plus the price of the fertilizer he had spread on the land a few weeks before the incident.
Attorney fees and lost yields from previous years’ damage both totaled thousands of dollars, he said.
The boys, meanwhile, were never charged with trespassing, he said.
The police report indicates that the juveniles were only warned about trespassing, West Hempfield Police Sgt. Russell Geier said in an email.
Many farmers have found evidence of unauthorized vehicles in the fields or heard hunters’ shots ring suspiciously close to their barns.
The problem of trespassing on farms is apparently serious enough that Indiana passed a law last month stiffening penalties for being on farmland without permission.
The question for Lefever, as for many other farmers, is how to stop trespassers without getting in trouble yourself.
Pennsylvania law has specific rules related to both agricultural trespassing and agricultural vandalism, said Adam Reed, a public information officer with the Pennsylvania State Police.
To head off trespassers, “obviously the first step would be to post the property” with no-trespassing signs, Reed said
Trespassers can also be arrested if the landowner asks the person to leave and the intruder does not, Reed said.
“Those are the most common scenarios that we see,” he said.
Lefever said vigilant sign posting was not enough in his case. “You’d come back a day or so later, and they were gone,” he said.
The signs were gone on the day of the incident, he said.
“I have heard of that, certainly, but in my experience, it’s been fairly rare,” Reed said.
In most cases, feuding neighbors are the ones who tear down no-trespassing signs, he said.
The same rules apply to woodlands and other open spaces. Fences are a sufficient alternative to no-trespassing signs because they are clearly designed to keep people out or livestock in, according to the law.
Ignoring posted signs is a third-degree misdemeanor that can bring a year in prison with a minimum fine of $250, Reed said.
Defying an order to leave is a more serious offense, carrying a punishment of up to two years in jail and a fine up to $5,000, the law says.
Agricultural vandalism, meanwhile, involves damage to crops and other materials used in farming.
“Unfortunately, in the very rural areas that we cover, that’s actually somewhat common,” Reed said.
Often, the culprits are minors.
“In my experience they often don’t realize the scope of what they’re doing,” Reed said. “There’s really some surprised faces” when they are faced with the cost and restitution involved.
It is hard for nonfarmers to see what is lost when vehicles tear up a field, Lefever said.
If the damages surpass $5,000, ag vandalism is a third-degree felony.
“It’s a very serious charge,” Reed said.
The best course of action when facing a trespasser is to gather as much information — such as a physical description, the vehicle type and the registration plate — and call the police, Reed said.
Detaining a trespasser is risky, as it can bring charges, depending on the situation, Reed said.
Many trespassers are armed or high on drugs. “It’s certainly not worth getting yourself hurt” to try restraining the person, Reed said.
As for displaying a gun, “it’s your property, so you do have a right to have a firearm,” Reed said. On the other hand, “you wouldn’t want to be the one who is facing charges, as well.”
Pointing a gun at trespassers, firing warning shots or shooting at the trespasser’s feet can get the landowner charged in addition to the trespasser, Reed said.
In short, a farmer is well within his rights to tell someone to leave his land, but beyond that, the best thing to do is to be a good witness, Reed said.
Similarly, the Pennsylvania Game Commission recommends landowners try to collect information about a trespassing hunter — such as a hunting or fur-taking license number, or a vehicle license plate — and then call police.
Game Commission officers cannot enforce trespassing laws.
Lefever, for his part, wishes things could have been resolved out of court. He and his wife sought mediation, and he offered to drop the charges if the boys’ parents cooperated.
Instead, he lost a place to farm and feels that justice has gone undone.
His advice for dealing with trespassers?
“Be careful, because it could end up costing you money,” he said.