The U.S. Supreme Court will review a "graveyard law" that attorneys say allows trespassing on private property.
Rose Mary Knick of Scott Township, Pennsylvania, says agents from the town came onto her property several years ago without asking her permission or obtaining a warrant of any kind. The reason? To search for old burial sites. When they claimed to have found one, the town issued her a citation for not allowing the public to visit her property.
"Many states have laws that prohibit so-called 'backyard burials,' but Pennsylvania does not – and so there are small family plots all over Pennsylvania dating back several hundred years," explains attorney Dave Breemer of Pacific Legal Foundation, the organization representing Knick. (See case history)
"The township in this area, for the first time in 2012, said it wanted to regulate these areas, but by 'regulate' ... it meant it wants to make them all publicly viewable," PLF's senior attorney continues. "They said Rose Mary Knick has one and ordered her, by law, to open it up to any member of the public, seven days a week, without compensation."
According to Breemer, that's unconstitutional. "The Constitution guarantees you compensation when the government takes away your right to keep your property private – because if you can't keep strangers off your property, it isn't private," he explains.
"She sued, but the state court said, 'We're not going to hear your case, we don't think it's ready to be heard.' She went to federal court and the federal court said, 'We're not going to hear your case, we think you should go to state court' where she had been before.
"So she's subject to this onerous law, but she can't get any court access because of procedural rules that kick her from court to court. So we're going to the Supreme Court to straighten out this mess, to get her her day in court so that she can challenge this access law on her property."
With the arguments in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky last week, and Weyerhaeuser v. United States Fish & Wildlife Service later this year, the Supreme Court will hear three cases involving PLF in 2018.
"We are going back and we're very thankful for that," says Breemer. "The court took this case to consider whether it's going to overrule, which is a big step, some prior cases that require property owners to jump through hoops no one else has to jump through. So not only would this case potentially affect people's rights to keep their private property private, but also their ability – without spending years and money in court, without spending more money than other classes – to be able to go to a judge and ask for a ruling on when the government has imposed restrictions [or] regulations on your property."