Greenville real estate broker Dottie Collins is still astonished at the boldness of a band of would-be squatters who last fall tacked a proclamation of ownership to the door of a Tampa Road house she was selling.
It was not as though being in the home-selling business in the Delta didn’t already have sufficient challenges. Now opportunists had laid claim to property Collins intended to sell and make a commission on.
They were relying on a long-standing legal doctrine in Mississippi and the rest of the United States called “adverse possession.” In Mississippi, a squatter must make his goal of adverse possession a full-time pursuit that lasts 10 years, according to Sec. 15-13 of the Mississippi Code. The squatter must be open and visible in what he is doing and must be in possession of the property without the owner’s permission.
As noted in advisory from the 12th Chancery Court District of Mississippi: “An adverse possessor must unfurl his flag on the land and keep it flying so that the owner may see… that an enemy has invaded his domains, and planted the standard of conquest.”
The wanna-be squatters seeking to seize the house listed by Dottie Collins never managed to plant that vital “standard of conquest.”
The over-sized catcher’s mitt worn by the Washington County Chancery Court clerk made sure of that, Collins said.
The prospective squatters would file their quit claim deeds to the house but the “mumbo-jumbo” wording of the claims each time led the clerk to catch them and toss them out, said Collins, broker and principal for the quarter-century-old Dottie Collins Real Estate.
In the meantime, the house-claimers “would send me notices by email that I should get back in touch with them by a certain date or they would own it,” Collins said.
The prospective squatters never spent a day occupying the house Collins had listed for sale. Her Greenville colleague Betsy Alexander was not as fortunate in her encounter with squatters around the same time last fall.
The squatters moved into the house on Greenville’s Bayou Road and may have been able to remain there for months had they not made the mistake of putting the address of the house next door on a bogus quit claim deed they filed.
A quit claim cedes interest in a property from one party to another but makes no representation of the validity of the title. In the instance of the Bayou Road house, the squatters figured their quit claim gave them ownership of everything in the house – furniture, toiletries, everything.
Despite the legal flimsiness of the claim, the presence of the squatters nonetheless cost Alexander opportunities to sell the house. Prospective buyers didn’t want the headache of dislodging the unauthorized occupants, said Alexander, broker and principal of Coldwell Banker Betsy Alexander Realty.
“It was a substantial loss on the house because people (who had looked at the house) were going, ‘We don’t want to live there.’”
Police finally removed the four squatters, who identified themselves as members of the “Sovereign Citizens Movement,” and jailed them on charges of burglary and grand theft.
The Sovereign Citizens Movement, a group of people who don’t pay taxes and don’t recognize state or federal law or their court systems, has become a nightmare in areas like Atlanta, Florida and the West Coast where forecloses jumped and entire neighborhoods of empty houses were left unattended.
SCM members file bogus quit-claim deeds in local court systems — the same systems they claim not to recognize — and begin to homestead in empty houses.
“This is essentially paper terrorism,” Alexander said in an interview last fall. “Let’s say I got an offer on the house today. The sale process could be held up for who knows how long because these people have filed a bogus deed, and unraveling that would be a nightmare. People think getting identity theft straightened out is bad. That’s nothing compared to this. Once you file a deed with a court, it’s extremely difficult to un-file it. And it affects people up and down the line.”
The Bayou Road homeowner who lived next door to the house commandeered by the four squatters at some point may have to deal with the fraudulent quit claim deed they filed on her home. “She’s a lawyer so she isn’t too worried about it,” Alexander said, though she acknowledged getting the deed removed will require patience and determination.
Collins said the owner of the house she was seeking to sell helped her cause by notifying the Mississippi Secretary of State and Washington County Chancery Clerk of the quit claim fraud targeting her home. “They knew it was a bogus claim and they just discarded it,” she said. “If we had let it go on it could have caused a very bif problem.”
Collins called the squatting attempts a “symptom of the times,” and added: “I had never heard of anything like this before, particularly like the one Betsy (Alexander) had where they just moved in.”
Ever since her close-call, Collins is on the lookout for squatting attempts. “I check every Monday to make sure no one is bothering these houses,” she said.
Interviewed earlier this month, Alexander said she has had no more squatter encounters. Her bigger concern today is the growing number of banked-owned foreclosure homes that are going without proper property upkeep.
While the homes and their surroundings deteriorate and diminish surrounding property values, the large national banks that own them are hardly aggressive in selling them, Alexander said.
“It is so maddening,” she said. “I had a call (from a prospective buyer) on a house that had been listed for years, and I couldn’t get Bank of America to respond. When they did respond, the buyer had moved onto something else.
“Meanwhile, the neighbors are raising cane.”