Question: Is it illegal to sneak into a political convention without a ticket and eat dinners that no one else is eating? Am I breaking any laws, or is it just frowned upon by society? The Republican convention is coming up, and I’d like to check it out, but I don’t want to buy a ticket.
— J. V.
Just because someone leaves a door open doesn’t mean you can walk through it.
Sneaking into the Republican convention would be trespassing, unless you wandered into the convention in a daze, honestly confused about whether you were in the wrong place.
A minor, non-disruptive trespasser would probably not get prosecuted criminally but might still get sued in a civil court for money.
If you were going to get sued by the Republicans, they would most likely sue you for common law trespass. In California, winning a lawsuit for trespass requires the Republicans to prove five things: (1) the Republicans’ ownership or control of the property; (2) your intentional, reckless or negligent entry on the property; (3) you lacked permission to enter the property, or you acted in excess of the permission; (4) actual harm to the Republicans; and (5) that your conduct was a substantial factor in causing the harm.
Most of these are easy to satisfy. A party that reserves a room has control of that property. Permission isn’t a question. Actual harm is the main sticking point: the Republicans would have to prove that you harmed them in some way by walking through the convention. As you stick around longer and disrupt more activities, the probability increases of the Republicans proving they suffered actual harm caused by you.
Importantly, where there is a consensual entry, there is no trespass. When a convention is in a hotel, you usually have the hotel’s implied permission to walk around the hotel’s lobby and hallways. And, of course, buying a ticket to the convention would give you the Republicans’ consent to attend the convention.
You can’t exceed the consent given to you, however. According to the Restatement of Torts (a big book about the common law), “a conditional or restricted consent to enter land creates a privilege to do so only insofar as the condition or restriction is complied with.” Any privilege to enter must be exercised at a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner.
In other words, when the hotel says you can go in the lobby or talk to the guy at the front desk, that does not give you the right to enter ballrooms. When the Republicans allow you to attend a speech in a ballroom, that does not give you the right to stick around for the $150 a plate dinner that follows.
In a civil lawsuit, a convention trespasser is unlikely to have to pay out much money, since sneaking into a convention usually would not cost the Republicans much money.
Trespassers who disrupt the convention or steal something of value (like a dinner) would have to pay out the cost of what they stole, or the estimated cost of the disruption. And if the trespasser acted really egregiously, the jury could punish him by making him pay punitive damages — extra money designed to punish. It would be up to a jury.
Getting prosecuted criminally, which could result in jail time, is not up to the Republicans — it’s up to the government. The government would have to prove that the trespasser intentionally entered the property to disrupt the property owner’s rights, and failed to comply when the property owner told him to leave. That intent element is a high hurdle.
For simply sneaking into a convention to listen to the next Mitt Romney, the government would probably not bother to prosecute. But Occupy-style tactics designed to disrupt the convention might catch the district attorney’s attention.
Daniel Watts is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted to @governorwatts.