State v. Shack

58 N.J. 297, 277 A.2d 369 (1971)

One-Sentence Takeaway: The conduct a staff attorney for non-profit organization formed to assist migrant farmworkers, in seeking to see farmworkers in privacy of their living quarters and without farmer-employer’s supervision, was beyond reach of the trespass statute.


Shack was a staff attorney employed by an organization funded pursuant to federal legislation, who sought access to camp property to discuss a legal problem with one of the workers. He also carried literature which informed migrants of assistance available to them under federal statutes. The owner of the farm insisted that any consultation between Shack and the worker take place in his presence. Shack declined, and was subsequently arrested and convicted for criminal trespass.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the trespass conviction.

In discussing the validity of the application of the trespass statute to Shack, the court stated that “ property rights serve human values,” and are limited by that end. Access to the farm property was granted on the basis of what the court stated was a maxim of the common law: “that one should so use his property as not to injure the rights of others.”

The Shack decision focused on the human values served by granting access to farm property, and weighed them against the owner’s property rights. The court characterized migrants as a highly disadvantaged segment of society — isolated, unorganized, lacking economic and political power, and unaware of their rights and of the services available to them. Stressing that the provisions of the Economic Opportunity Act embodied a Congressional commitment to promote the human values represented by the migrants’ well-being, the court stated:

These [congressional] ends would not be gained if the intended beneficiaries could be insulated from efforts to reach them. It is in this framework that we must decide whether the camp operator’s rights in his lands may stand between the migrant workers and those who would aid them. The key to that aid is communication.

The court concluded that “[t]itle to real property cannot include dominion over the destiny of persons the owner permits to come upon the premises. Their well-being must remain the paramount concern of a system of law.” Refusing access to those seeking to aid the migrant worker was an impermissible interference with the worker’s well-being:

[T]he employer may not deny the worker his privacy or interfere with his opportunity to live with dignity and to enjoy associations customary among our citizens. These rights are too fundamental to be denied on the basis of an interest in real property and too fragile to be left to the unequal bargaining strength of the parties.

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