It’s hard to believe you could walk into a luxury home abandoned by the owner, file a simple piece of paper with the county, stay put in the extravagance, and claim you are the rightful possessor? A little over six months ago, Robert George Harris III tried to do just that. However, things didn’t work out quite like he had hoped.
Harris found an abandoned home in Okaloosa County, which he later realized was owned by the Bank of America, and because it was unlocked, he entered. Harris paid to have the locks changed and lived in the house for two months. After being confronted by police, Harris claimed ownership of the home under Florida’s adverse possession laws.
Harris would’ve done himself a favor by taking a look at the adverse possession law in Florida or calling an attorney before making himself comfortable in the Okaloosa home.
In Florida, adverse possession is acquired by actual, continuous, and uninterrupted use by the claimant (i.e. the squatter) of the lands of another, for seven years. In addition, the use must be adverse to that of the owner and must either be with the knowledge of the owner or so open, notorious, and visible that the claimant’s use is imputed to the owner.
Moreover, the claimant’s use or possession must be inconsistent with the owner’s enjoyment of the property and must not be a permissive use. Therefore, the use must be such that the owner has a right to stop it, such as an action for trespass or eviction.
When claiming adverse possession, the use or possession is presumed to be in subordination to the true owner and with his permission, so the burden is on the claimant to prove that the use or possession is adverse. This essential element as well as all others must be proven by clear and positive proof and can’t be established by loose or uncertain testimony. Any doubt as to the creation of the right must be resolved in favor of the owner.
Additionally, the Florida courts have said that a mere “mental enclosure” of property is not enough for actual possession. To have actual possession, there must be continued acts of occupying, clearing, cultivating, pasturing, building fences, or other improvements on the property, in addition to paying taxes on the property.
To prove that the use is open and notorious, the claimant’s occupancy must be conspicuous, widely recognized, and commonly known, which can be shown by visible acts of ownership.
In cases where the squatter has met all of the elements of adverse possession, police officers are typically powerless to remove the resident. However, in Harris’ case, he had no proof of ownership, (which is sometimes shown in the form of utilities in the new owner’s name), no proof that he paid taxes on the property, and no proof that his use was continuous. Purchasing new locks was not enough for Harris to take the home by adverse possession.
Harris was subsequently charged with burglary, larceny, and fraud. People across the country are following in Harris’ footsteps in hopes of walking into an abandoned mansion and becoming the rightful owner. Unfortunately, without really understanding the law on adverse possession, many of these folks may find themselves facing criminal charges.