Article 25

Ask an Unemployed Lawyer

In Uncategorized on 04/08/2013 at 6:08 pm


We Are Squatters, Every One of Us

Dear Unemployed Lawyer:

A 23-year-old guy in Florida is trying to take over a $2.5 million mansion. Would this work in Ohio? My place is a dump but there’s an empty house up the road that looks pretty sweet.

Current Resident

Dear Current:

Property has been defined in law to include personal property like cattle, slaves and women (but not stuff like your blood or your fetus) and real property, aka land. This has led to a lot of unintended hilarious historical revisionism over the years.

“Adverse possession” is one such mutation of a high legal principle, representing a great moral truth, succumbing to pragmatic realism over time.

The short answer to your question is “No.” As a rule, you should not model any behavior from Florida, especially concerning elections or laws or anything regarding the general social good.  Also, the law in Ohio requires 21 years of possession before you can legally claim it as yours. You won’t have 21 days before someone is beating you up and the Enquirer is doing a series of stories on what 3CDC is doing to curtail violent squatters from taking over the city.

But this is a good example of why “original intent” is such a specious argument. The only “original intent” of the U.S. Constitution was to protect the minority of intelligent, wealthy land-owners against the crass majority of blithering idiots. The “liberal” period of the court cleverly used this intent to define “minority” on the basis of things like race and gender and apply those constitutional protections to people who were likely never intended to have them.

So now we have conservatives arguing that the “original intent” of the Constitution was direct democracy and equality – the People spoke with Prop 8 in California! –  which is a strange argument to make about a document that talks about three-fifths of a person and sets up a Senate comprised of two representatives from each state, regardless of population.

So, you have this grand principle, Land Ownership. King of his castle, all that crap. The problem in less technological times was how does a court determine who has the superior, or original, title? The first answer was to set a cutoff date, so that if your claim to title was before the time of record-keeping for Henry I, for instance, then you were out of luck.

The problem, of course, was over time the “validation” time kept changing – Henry I, II, III, IV, we  ain’t got no records no more – and it was proving to be a pain in the ass for the courts. For reasons not worth using Latin words to describe, “adverse possession” came into being as an efficient way to clear land titles.

Back in 19th century America, when records were difficult to keep, the country was expanding, and bust-and-boom cycles defined the economy, adverse possession was a way to encourage (abandoned) land to be productive, as lazy land was seen as a moral hazard.

Because ownership of property bestows one with divine rights, adverse possession laws included elements to ensure “secret squatters” (who would likely keep the land lazy) did not qualify. The person claiming adverse possession has to do so in an open, flamboyant manner. It’s even to be “hostile” and “notorious.” You can smell the gunpowder from the prose.

Today, adverse possession is almost exclusively used for property-line disputes, like the neighbor who built a fence 30 feet onto the adjoining property, treats it as part of his own and 21 years later decides it’s his.

By the way, according to author Robert Neuwirth, approximately one of every seven persons in the world is a squatter (about 1 billion squatters). To quote anarchist Colin Ward: “Squatting is the oldest mode of tenure in the world, and we are all descended from squatters. … They are all the ultimate recipients of stolen land, for to regard our planet as a commodity offends every conceivable principle of natural rights.”

So, you know, if you feel so moved for political or economic reasons, have a squat. Just don’t expect the law to take your side, even in Florida.



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