Imagine coming back from an extended stay away from home only to find someone has set up shop in your house, claiming it now belongs to them. That’s just what’s happened in dozens of cases in Tarrant County, Texas, where the District Attorney says crooks are trying to use a decades old law to conduct a new scam.
“It's just people trying to get something for nothing,” says Tarrant County DA Joe Shannon.
The problem first came to Shannon’s attention this year, when police agencies started calling about strange but similar cases. One of them involved Joe Brunner, the head of a homeowners association in Arlington, Texas.
His neighbor had been in Houston for months getting chemotherapy when the HOA’s security detail called Brunner saying someone else was in the home. When Brunner contacted the man living inside, the man claimed he now owned the home. But that wasn’t all.
“There was a large dumpster in the driveway,” says Brunner. “He filled it up with items from the house.”
Brunner called the police. When they arrived, the squatter showed them a document claiming something called “adverse possession.”
“Adverse possession is a concept that's been around for a long time. It was created when Texas was a Republic to resolve land disputes," Shannon explains. "So for example, if one man’s land had a river as a boundary, and the river changed course over the years, who’s entitled to that land? The adverse possession allowed a new owner to claim the land, but only after openly possessing it and using it for years."
The law is still used to resolve rural land disputes today, but has created complications in the big city.
“There's nothing in the statute that says you can't, so conceivably you could set up camp for 10 years,” says Shannon, “but the chances are there's some mortgage company or somebody that's not getting the payments on it, so it's not real practical in the cities.”
The Tarrant County Clerk’s office accepted about 60 of these adverse possession filings this year before it stopped taking them. Some of the more egregious cases include Brunner’s neighbor, the woman receiving chemotherapy, and a travelling nurse who had been gone for a few months because of work.
“I will say this is the most amazing situation we’ve ever dealt with,” says Tarrant County Constable Clint Burgess. “How anyone thinks they can take a home for $16 and live in it and then grief to a homeowner after that, it just amazes us.”
The squatters have even gone so far as to file mechanic’s liens against the homeowners to reclaim funds for supposed “improvements” to the house. Then they offer to settle with the homeowner, for a price.
To District Attorney Shannon, these cases are criminal, pure and simple.
“A person who moves in without the consent of the owner with the intent to commit felony or theft or assault, then that's a burglary of a habitation,” said Shannon.
So far, Shannon is prosecuting about five of these cases with more to come. Investigators are trying to figure out why these cases have popped up in Tarrant County this year and if any of them are related.
For Brunner, the HOA president whose neighbor was victimized, the damage is done. He says his neighbor is now considering selling the half million dollar home.