Adverse Possession in Las Vegas

Here’s an interesting current article about Adverse possession (squatting) in Las Vegas. As the article mentions, until there was a new law banning “unlawful occupancy”, the cops could do little if the people had a lease, even if fake, and there was no obvious sign of breaking and entering. In which case it was a CIVIL dispute. But even now, in order to prove unlawful occupancy, the cops seem to need cooperation of the legal owner, since only he can declare that the people in the house are there unlawfully.

“In Empty Homes of Las Vegas, Squatters See a New Frontier

Squatters have descended on every corner of the Las Vegas Valley, taking over empty houses in struggling working-class neighborhoods, in upscale planned communities like Summerlin, and everywhere in between. And they often bring a trail of crime with them.

While some unauthorized tenants are families seeking shelter, police officers here say they are more frequently finding chop shops, drug dealers and counterfeiters operating out of foreclosed homes.

The situation is getting worse: the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has received more calls about squatters each year since it began tracking the problem; there were more than 4,000 complaints last year, up 43 percent from 2014 and more than twice as many as in 2012.

The problem has grown so acute that the Nevada Legislature passed a law last fall to make it easier to arrest squatters, who often brandish phony leases in hopes of staying longer in the homes they have taken over.

“People drive through neighborhoods and look for houses that appear to be vacant,” said Lt. Nick Farese, who is leading the police department’s antisquatter efforts. He said that squatters occupied homes across this entire city of 600,000 people, adding that “we have seen a direct correlation between squatter houses and crime — burglaries, theft, robberies, narcotics.”

But with a transient population of down-and-out gamblers and a glut of homes that have already been foreclosed, opportunists can still take their pick of thousands of empty houses. Inside one, squatters had scrawled a warning to stay away on a wall: “Violent tweekers on guard.”

Several other areas that were hit hard by the housing crisis, like Detroit and parts of Florida, have also dealt with persistent squatters.

In North Las Vegas, Deborah Lewis has seen just about every kind of squatter at the house next door since the owners walked away four years ago.

First, two women said they had just bought the middle-class home, but they stole water from the neighbors’ outdoor spigots at night, because like most abandoned homes this one had no running water. Then came a group of counterfeiters, who left their printing materials visible from the window, Ms. Lewis said. Later groups tore out the stove, refrigerator and copper wire; broke windows; and burned the kitchen floor. Since water at the house had been shut off, they left feces all over one room, a common problem that creates health hazards. (For electricity, those who can afford it can set up accounts with the power company; those who cannot often run wires to nearby utility boxes.)

Victoria Seaman, a Realtor and state assemblywoman who represents Las Vegas, said she realized how serious the problem was after she found herself face to face with squatters. While she was checking on a property she was selling, two children answered the door and showed her a lease that Ms. Seaman said she knew was bogus. The parents said they had found the place on Craigslist and met someone at a casino once a month to pay rent in cash.

But there was little that the police could do under Nevada law at that time: If the squatters produced a lease, even if it was clearly a fake, and there was no evidence of breaking and entering, it was considered a civil dispute.

“When do kids have a lease in their back pocket?” Ms. Seaman said. “That’s when I realized how bad it was. I was a legislator and a Realtor, and I felt so helpless.”

Ms. Seaman found that across her district in northwestern Las Vegas squatters had infiltrated even wealthier neighborhoods. So she sponsored a law that established new criminal offenses like unlawful occupancy, which outlaws moving into a vacant home knowing you do not have permission to be there. Violators can face misdemeanor or felony charges.

The new law has hardly been a cure-all, though. Investigating fake leases cases takes time, police officers say, and usually involves finding the legal owner — and owners who walked away from underwater mortgages are not always in the mood to help.

And years of budget cuts during the recession have left local police departments short on resources.

“One of the biggest challenges is carving out time to combat squatters in the middle of the violent crime epidemic we’re facing,” Lieutenant Farese said. “There’s a lack of budget, a lack of manpower.”

Local agencies have started to get creative in their efforts to combat squatters. Banks have slowed a “cash for keys” program that offered residents money to leave foreclosed homes; local elected officials said squatters were making a living moving into one foreclosed house after another, then asking the bank to pay them to move out. Once a home is listed as foreclosed in North Las Vegas, new residents cannot get their water turned on unless they prove legal occupancy.

But squatters are getting creative as well. Some repair broken windows and other damage from past squatters, pretending they own the place, neighbors say. At least one group of alleged squatters filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to keep possession of the $800,000 home in the hills they were occupying, with its pool and views overlooking the Strip. (Repeated calls and knocks on the door at that house went unanswered, even though four people were visible in the living room. The police raided the house and arrested four people on Wednesday.)

In North Las Vegas, Officer Scott Vaughn has investigated 80 squatting cases so far this year, and said he had seen everything: prostitution rings; teenagers using vacant homes for parties; and even a squatter who tried to pull a Jedi mind trick.

“He was staring at me and telling me, ‘You don’t want to arrest me. You want to let me go,’” Officer Vaughn said. “I said, ‘The Force is not on your side today. You’re going to jail.’”

About David Robinson

David Robinson is an Author and Journalist living in the mid-coast area of Maine. He is a Graduate and Alumni of the Brunswick Police Academy. He served as a JUROR seated on the Cumberland County, Maine, Grand Jury for the first four month session of 2014. Publisher Robinson served 3 months of a 4 month sentence for Conspiracy to defraud the United States, at the FCI Berlin minimum security Satellite Camp in Berlin New Hampshire, as retaliation after he and a friend sued the IRS, unsuccessfully, for Unfair Trade Practices, under Title 15 of the US Code.
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