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Shooting on a Meramec gravel bar draws attention to uncertain property rights


The July 20 shooting on a gravel bar along the Meramec River,  downstream from the Highway 19 bridge south of Cuba, Missouri, has drawn attention to the uncertainties of the rights of floaters to be on gravel bars and areas adjacent to the river.  This section of the Meramec River, downstream from Maramec Spring, carries thousands of canoes, rafts and kayaks every year.

The reports of the shooting incident recount an argument between James Robert Crocker, apparently the owner of land along the river, and a group of floaters who had stopped on a gravel bar for the usual reasons. Crocker confronted the group of floaters. An argument ensued over whether the floaters were trespassing, according to Crocker’s statement to the police. Crocker shot one of the floaters, Paul Dart, who died on the way to the hospital.

On Monday, I received the first of several calls from the media. Kim Bell, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told me that somebody at the Missouri Department of Conservation told her that I was knowledgeable about issues relating to rights of property owners and persons using streams for recreation. The story that Kim Bell wrote for the Post-Dispatch’s online edition has been widely copied, and my flippant remark that Missouri doesn’t yet have a stand-your-gravel-bar law became the basis for a Post-Dispatch editorial that has also circulated around the internet and appeared in several newspapers.

Kim Bell accurately reported what I said, but part of my remarks appear to be a misstatement of law. I said, “You are on private property, but you have a right to be there if it’s a navigable stream and as long as you are on a gravel bar that is submerged during parts of the year, because it’s part of the stream bed.”

I should have also explained that the public’s right to be on a stream doesn’t depend solely on whether the stream is navigable. In Elder v. Delcour (1954), the Missouri Supreme Court held that the public has an easement over the Meramec River, even though it was not navigable:

we must and do hold that the waters of the Meramec River are public waters and the submerged area of its channel over and across appellant’s farm is a public highway for travel and passage by floating and by wading, for business or for pleasure, and that in traveling the course of the stream by canoe or wading, respondent was not a trespasser on the property of appellant.

Even though the Meramec River in Dent and Crawford counties has been determined to be non-navigable by the Missouri Supreme Court, it is still a public highway as a matter of law. A trespass does not occur by canoeing or wading on it. The issue of navigability has to do with ownership of the stream bed, not the right to be in a the bed of a stream. Neither the Missouri Supreme Court or the legislature have given us any clear way to determine whether any other stream’s waters are “public waters.”

To get to the heart of the dispute between Crocker and the floaters, what about the right to be on a gravel bar?  In Elder v. Delcour, the court cites another case for idea that the right to float on a stream includes other incidental rights:

The right to float is but a right of passage, and includes only such rights as are incident to the use of the stream for that purpose, and necessary to render such use reasonably available.

If people could not stop on a gravel bar to dump water out of a swamped boat, eat lunch or attend to calls of nature, the rights of passage would be greatly inhibited if not denied. But permissible incidental rights do not ordinarily include the right to walk outside the course of a stream  into pastures and woods,  dump litter, broadcast music, shoot fireworks, cut firewood, pilfer outbuildings and disturb livestock and human residents.

My essay on Missouri stream law is here.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

7 responses »

  1. Harry:

    Thanks for this additional input. I have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind. I’ve read the PDF guide (A Summary of Missouri Water Laws) and it seems like a bit of a gray area to me. Granted, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like the PDF used the term stream bank as opposed to stream bed, and the way I read it, those are two different terms. The guide seems to indicate a property owner owns all the way up to where the water begins (on a navigable river), regardless of where the water rests at any given time. It also said that while the public had a right to move up and down the stream it did not grant them any rights to the river bank. I looked up the definition of “stream bank” and it said a stream bank runs along side the stream bed which would seem to include the gravel bar or any sandbars on the side of the river. The Google pictures even included pictures that seemed to indicate the sloping sand before the water was considered stream bank. Perhaps it all hinges on how the state of Missouri defines these terms? Can you provide some clarification?

    Second you stated that it does not grant any rights “outside the course of a stream into pastures and woods, dump litter, broadcast music, shoot fireworks, cut firewood, pilfer outbuildings and disturb livestock and human residents.” I have friends who own property along a river and I have had to help them clean up the mess after a weekend of floaters. Trash, excrement, and in some cases they have even burned wood and caught the foliage on fire. In your opinion, does not a property owner have the right to ask floaters to leave (even on the gravel bar) when it is the property owner who has to clean up the mess on their own property? The state does not maintain the gravel bars and neither do the floating companies. It seems odd that the state forces property owners to allow floaters to use the property and also places the onus of clean-up on the property owner.

    Furthermore, the use of the banks for urinating and such becomes complicated when you consider many families who own property along the river camp and bring their children there. Why should a family have to accept that inebriated floaters are going to be stopping off at the gravel bar, urinating in the woods, possibly exposing themselves within eye-shot of children? I understand it is a very complicated matter, but what are your thoughts?

    Reply
    • Andrew,
      Regarding your first question, there isn’t any specific answer. The banks of streams have many different shapes which often change. Legal rules don’t fit dynamic circumstances very well.

      Your next question is whether a property owner has a right to ask floaters to leave a gravel bar because the property owner has to clean up the mess. Of course, the property owner has the right to ask them to leave, and the floaters are not obligated to immediately do so, though they have no right to stay there indefinitely, and they have no right to litter.

      While I don’t think anyone should be forced to watch people urinate, I see it as more likely to be disgusting and unfortunate rather than damaging. It’s certainly ruins the view of the stream from the porch.

  2. Does the State not regulate, restrict, waste discharge to public waters for its health hazard, particularly from feces?

    I live on an island in Lake Michigan. I removed the overboard discharge capability from my sailboat. Living in South Carolina, on Charleston Harbor, the rule was “a chicken-leg will get you five years.”

    Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Another question; someone on another forum discussing the trespass aspects of the Crocker shooting has made much of the “vegetation line,” though in my brief perusal of his citations I don’t recall seeing the term. Will the vegetation line be an aspect of the trespass determination? Should I look more closely?

    I have found the sheriff’s office press release but no court documents. Is there a publicly accessible court documents site that will chronicle the case, please?

    Reply
  4. The article says Darts cousin went into the woods and that is where this started. Clearly the woods is Crocker’s private property and they were in an area they did not belong. A request to leave private property by a land owner should be responded with “okay” and leave! They didn’t leave and only escalated the matter. This was Crocker’s land and picking up a rock is a threatening gesture. Trying to remove his firearm from his hand is a threatening gesture also. If Crocker had let him take his gun, we might be reading a different headline on this article. He would likely be dead.

    Reply

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