To most people, the term “squatter’s rights,” might sound like a farfetched dream cooked up in the heads of those who simply can’t afford to buy a home on their own. Under most conceptualizations of the term, a squatter would be given rights to the property as long as they maintained an unencumbered residence there. Of course, that’s not entirely (or even partially) true and squatter’s rights are often nothing more than myths. But, there are laws on the books in California that allow you to take possession of a home without actually purchasing the home in a conventional way. That’s what one group of people tried to do (fraudulently) over the course of a few years.
Six suspects—including Fresno attorney, Craig Merrill Mortensen, and Fresno resident, Sandra Elaine Barton—are accused of claiming “squatter’s rights” to abandoned properties throughout the state of California. In total, there are 23 properties that they had a false claim to, but there scheme backfired largely because they went about it illegally. There are laws on the books that read very similar to traditional squatter’s rights ideas, but, in most cases, that doesn’t mean you get to live on a property for free.
In fact, the laws of “adverse possession” in California require a number of different things. First of all, you need to live on the distressed or abandoned property for at least five years. You also need to pay the property taxes on the property for each of those five years. If you can prove that you have successfully fulfilled those duties, then you can apply for the title of the property and take it away from the current owner (if there is one). This is certainly an unusual law, but it’s the law that Mortensen and Barton (et al) were trying to use to gain control of 23 properties in California.
Unfortunately for these suspects, they did not actually meet the qualifications for taking over these distressed properties. Instead, they falsified documents that claimed they had been living on the properties for over 5 years and that they had been paying property taxes during that time. Had they actually been doing that, they could have legally taken control of the homes. Instead, they were looking for a quick profit by renting out the homes illegally. What the group of six suspects actually received was a list of 288 separate counts of perjury, preparing false evidence in regard to transferring titles, and filing court records that were falsified.
If convicted, Mortensen and Barton could face sentences of up to 108 or 103 years respectively. Three other assailants in this case have also been arrested and the sixth is still at large. If anything, this situation reveals that squatter’s rights exist to some degree, but they require the proper legal action to be taken seriously. In this case, the suspects tried to skirt the law and take control over abandoned properties to no avail. But, if you’re interested in pursuing adverse possession in California, then you merely need to live on a property for five years and pay the property taxes.
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Blake Bianco is a criminal justice major at the University of Southern California. In addition to writing articles on crime, he is a regular guest writer for numerous sport blogs.