Imagine coming home from a long vacation and finding someone living in your house.
You call the police, who tell you that if they can’t easily determine there was a break-in and if the strangers claim they rightfully live there, the matter must be decided in a civil eviction court case.
That might sound surprising, but state lawmakers say it’s possible — and something they hope is changed by a bill Gov. Jay Inslee signed this week.
Senate Bill 5388, sponsored by Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, gives property owners a new tool aimed at evicting squatters quicker and without the hassle of a court battle.
Property owners now can sign a form — under threat of perjury — that squatters have never been allowed to live on the property, have not been a tenant or on the title for at least a year, and don’t meet other legal defenses to trespassing. One justification is that a property was abandoned.
If the squatters can’t provide credible evidence to the contrary, police are freer to boot them, Zeiger said.
Some maintain the measure is unnecessary: Horror stories of squatters might be the result of law enforcement and land owners not properly using existing trespassing and eviction law, said Bob Cooper, a lobbyist for the Washington Defender Association and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
But Zeiger said his legislation will help people avoid the “extended nightmares” of lengthy court cases by making it easier for police to chase off squatters.
The state House and Senate unanimously approved the bill.
“This is a statewide issue,” Zeiger said. “We’ve heard from people in urban areas, rural areas, suburban areas who are having issues with squatters.”
“It’s my property”
Bobbie Garver, a Thurston County property owner, testified in Olympia in January about one example of a situation Zeiger’s bill could help.
She found out in June that squatters had moved onto undeveloped land she inherited north of Lacey.
When she checked on the property, she saw “derelict motor homes, travel trailers, tents and a pickup camper,” Garver told a Senate panel.
The new inhabitants had removed a padlock she put on the driveway and replaced it with their own. They even put up “no trespassing” signs.
“I cannot believe the sight of my grandparent’s former home,” Garver said.
When she called police, she said, she was told not to go on the land. Her best option to evict the squatters was through civil court.
“It’s my property,” Garver said, with disbelief in her voice.
Thurston County court records show two of the inhabitants on Garver’s land claimed they were asked to stay on the property and “clean it up in exchange for rent.”
Garver testified in the January public hearing that she had never met them before they took over the land.
At the time, Garver said, she had paid more than $5,000 in attorney’s fees as the case inched toward a key March court date.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Carla Carter said she wasn’t familiar with the case but the fact that Garver’s situation went to court didn’t sound unusual.
Carter said police might avoid removing potential squatters in similar circumstances because officers can’t always decide who is telling the truth when there are two sides of an argument. The property owner could be trying to boot out rightful tenants, she noted.
“We’re presented varying information, and we don’t have the means to sort through that legal information out in the field,” Carter said. “That’s what the courts are for.”
Tacoma landlord Rose Nelson, 58, went through a situation similar to Garver’s last year.
She had to use community pressure to get people she accused of being squatters out of a house she rents. She asked a previous tenant who wasn’t paying rent to leave. The tenant did, but gave the keys to strangers when leaving the building.
The new occupants later told police they were were proper residents and renting from Nelson, she said. Law enforcement recommended Nelson try the courts.
While she started the legal process, she said, the new occupants left after about a month but not before doing more than $20,000 in damage to the place.
“They made a mess,” Nelson said.
To help police feel more comfortable removing potential squatters, Zeiger said the bill was written to not apply in disputes between tenants and landlords. That’s why the new legal declaration can’t be used against tenants who had recently been on a lease, he said.
Even with those restrictions, the new form still might not be enough evidence to convince police deciding whether to remove someone suspected of squatting from a property, said Mitch Barker, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs.
Some police departments might continue to recommend civil courts for situations such as Nelson’s, he said, in part because fear remains they will make the wrong call and kick out a legitimate tenant.
In the past, there also has been concern the wrong choice would lead to legal action against police, Barker said, although Zeiger’s bill says police acting in “good faith” can’t be held liable.
Still, Barker said, “I think in most cases if there’s any question, they’re going to have to defer to that civil process.”
Cooper remains unconvinced the new law represents any change from the status quo.
He said police could have treated the people living on Garver’s land as trespassers. If police were hesitant to do so, an eviction court case would clear up any doubt, he said.
“The bill seems to be redundant,” Cooper said.
To Cooper’s point, Garver’s civil court case has been partially resolved in her favor. On March 10, a judge ordered the two people living on Garver’s property to leave, and ruled she could collect legal costs.
A trial is set for 2018 to see whether Garver should get money for what happened to her property.
State Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw and a Seattle police officer, was more bullish the new form will help police trying to evict squatters — even if not every department embraces it.
The form aids police investigating trespassing by helping officers “establish clear and precise probable cause” to remove possible squatters, Irwin said.
In Garver’s situation, Irwin said, it would be “really, really hard in the field to make that super quick decision right then and there” under current law. The new form “will help make that decision” and might lead to police removing squatters faster than a court case would, he said.
Barker also said the measure might provide useful in some circumstances. In other words, it can’t hurt.
“We always like to have more tools and more flexibility to deal with situations like this because there are so many variables,” Barker said.
It’s unclear whether Zeiger’s bill would have made law enforcement opt to clear Garver or Nelson’s properties quicker.
Yet Garver, at the January hearing, said the court system can be needlessly onerous in situations such as hers. She favored the new option, she said, in hopes it will help expedite eviction of squatters for others.
“The next victim may not have the resources or the physical ability to deal with it,” she said.