SEIU Picketing on Someone’s Front Porch?

Nina Easton at Fortune writes about an SEIU protest at a Bank of America executive’s house, and reports that “hordes of invaders poured out of 14 school buses, up Baer’s steps, and onto his front porch.” (Easton is Baer’s neighbor, and is apparently reporting based on her own personal observation. [UPDATE: I neglected to mention that the story is accompanied with a photo that strongly supports Easton’s account.]) Reader Sean Mattingly asks whether this could lead to a civil lawsuit against SEIU.

I’m inclined to say that it indeed can, if it is right that the SEIU protesters went onto Baer’s property, and if they did so beyond just having a couple of people come up briefly to ring the doorbell. Intentionally going on another’s property without his permission is a trespass, and can lead to compensatory and punitive damages. What’s more, if this was seen as part of the SEIU’s organizational plan, and not just as the actions of some stray low-level members, then I think the SEIU itself would be liable.

There are limits to this in situations where such behavior is customarily allowed, and where no contrary statement has been made by the property owner. “Permission may be implied where the owner acquiesces in the known, customary use of property by the public.” (See also Alvin v. Simpson, 491 N.W.2d 604 (Mich. Ct. App. 1992), acknowledging this as to residential property, there a back yard; Keesecker v. G.M. McKelvey Co., 47 N.E.2d 211 (Ohio 1943) (implied license as defense to trespass was a question for the jury because, “in this day and age it is a matter of general knowledge that deliverymen, tradespeople and others having business or prospective business with the occupants of a private dwelling, or being in quest of information, commonly call at the front door. In the present case the porch door was unlocked, there was no warning to stay out, a doorbell was located beside the inside door, and the deliveryman was of the honest belief that the package he carried was to be left at the Keesecker residence.”) Going onto someone’s porch to ring the doorbell and ask for directions, try to sell Girl Scout cookies, hand out religious or political literature, and the like is generally allowed, on the theory that such normal behavior is implicitly licensed by the property owner (unless the owner specifically says the contrary with regard to some uses, for instance by posting a “No Soliciting” sign).

But it seems to me that going onto a porch en masse, or for more than just the time it takes to knock on the door and explain oneself to the resident, “exceed[s] … the scope of [the] implied license.” If any of you are more knowledgeable about this corner of trespass tort law than I am (the criminal law of trespass is a separate area), I’d love to hear more on this from you.

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