Taking scenic pictures anywhere outside city limits in the state of Wyoming could now get you thrown in jail. Signed into law in March, the Data Trespass Bill enhances laws against trespassing, but the intent of the bill seems to be clear — protecting polluters from prosecution by criminalizing the collecting of evidence against them.
No, it’s not exactly as simple as just snapping a photo, but if you want to “collect resource data” without express consent to do so and you intend to pass it on to a government agency, the penalties include a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a year in prison.
Under the law’s sweeping language, “to collect” means to “take a sample of material, acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form from ‘open land’ which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.” With such a sweeping definition, proving the intention to pass along such evidence might not be so difficult, and could potentially include taking a picture of, say, Yellowstone.
One of the key differences between this law and traditional criminal trespass is you don’t have to knowingly wander onto restricted land, so an honest mistake could still mean you’re guilty. Of great concern is the need to hold polluters accountable for violations of the Clean Water Act, and those who knowingly pollute waterways aren’t likely to give the required verbal or written permission for anyone to collect samples of their transgressions. Even if you feel going to prison is a fair price to pay for exposing a polluter, you’re out of luck as the law nullifies any data collected under such circumstances.
A key element of the Clean Water Act is reliance on public citizens to spot violations, but this trespass law, and similar legislation in other states including Idaho and Utah, renders citizen science helpless, even in the event of imminent threat to public health. What these laws essentially accomplish is putting rights of their state agricultural industries above the rights of citizens not to have our shared land fouled with pollutants. Rather than addressing the root of the issue, the law shows a preference for sweeping the problem under the rug.