Colorado Springs, Criminal Justice, Economy, El Paso County, Property rights, Scott Weiser

Squatters may be sent packing by new law

Denver — State Senators Bob Gardner (R-Dist. 12) and Owen Hill (R-Dist. 10), and State Representatives Larry Liston (R-Dist. 16) and Dave Williams (R-Dist.15) all of El Paso County, have submitted a bill to protect homeowners against squatters.

An international movement by homeless people and activists to take over abandoned and vacant apartment buildings in large cities like Amsterdam and New York City goes back as far as the 1960s. What began as takeovers of derelict apartment buildings with ambiguous ownership in U.S. cities has now expanded to a nationwide problem of squatters breaking in to individual residences.

An offshoot of the “Occupy” movement, activists began occupying foreclosed homes owned by banks after the real-estate meltdown of 2009.

More recently however, private homes that are temporarily unoccupied because their owners may be on vacation or deployed with the military have been the target of squatters.

Squatters look for homes that remain unoccupied for a time, break in, change the locks, and get electrical service in their names in hopes of establishing legal residency or at least confusing the issue for as long as possible.

Colorado Springs KOAA News 5 reported in December that Myrtis Johnson of Pueblo was victimized by squatters.

“They (squatters) are living there for free without permission, without signing anything, without paying anything,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty darn ridiculous that we have laws to protect them,” says KOAA reporter Eric Ross.

Police are reluctant to remove people who claim they have a right to be there. This unwillingness to act requires homeowners to initiate a formal eviction process to recover their homes. The process can take weeks or months to complete.

Homeowners returning from extended vacations or military deployments have found themselves unable to return to their own homes for protracted periods.

The bill directs law enforcement to remove squatters if the homeowner or an authorized agent signs a document under penalty of perjury stating that the persons occupying the premises are there without permission.

To protect legitimate tenants from landlord abuse the bill makes false statements by the homeowner a crime and notifies them that they are subject to being sued civilly by the occupants for falsely invoking the law.

The bill also requires the homeowner to indemnify the police against “actions or omissions made in good faith pursuant to this declaration.” This puts the burden on the homeowner if the squatters sue the police.

The bill gives the police the power to remove squatters within 24 hours without arresting them and to order them to stay away or be arrested for criminal trespass.

It also requires that the police provide the squatters with “a reasonable opportunity to secure and present any credible evidence” that they are legally entitled to be there.

In addition, police can arrest squatters who have committed an “unauthorized alteration or damage” to the property on a class 1 misdemeanor charge.

The bill, SB 18-015, has been introduced in the Senate and assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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