Our country is founded on property rights.
This sound principle seems laughable to anyone in Colorado who has endured the menace of homeless squatters taking over a home.
Investigative work by Colorado Springs KOAA News 5 exposed how homeless people take over residences of lawful occupants who have gone on vacation. Some invade rental homes while they sit vacant between lawful tenants.
"Imagine coming home and finding random people inside," explained a recent News 5 report. "That's exactly what happened to Roland Hawkins who discovered several homeless people had moved in while he was out of state.
"You would think the homeless people would have been charged with burglary or trespassing and forced to leave, but getting them out is not that easy.
"In Colorado, the justice system appears to protect criminals while punishing the victims - at least in cases involving squatters."
It is hard to believe, but true. Come home and find squatters, chances are you are in for a court battle to get them out. In fact, you will have no lawful right to enter your home without permission of the squatters. That's because police have no means of distinguishing lawful tenants or visitors from peaceful intruders.
"20 to 30 percent of the evictions we do are people that are actually not on the lease," Deputy Paul Smith told News 5, explaining it is "not uncommon" for squatters to take over homes.
The News 5 report said people scout neighborhoods, searching for empty residences. They break in, change locks, and claim legal occupancy. Rightful owners or tenants must prove the squatters don't belong.
Tenancy disputes are not criminal matters. They are civil disputes. This limits what cops can do, and successful squatters know how to work the system. Typically, one or more squatters tell police they were invited to live in the home by a previous tenant or by the home's rightful owner. By Colorado law, that means they have rights to remain in the home unless and until their story can be disproved in court.
News 5 asked and answered why police cannot charge squatters with home invasion.
"By law, a home invasion is defined as someone who forcefully enters an occupied, private dwelling with intent to commit a violent crime against the occupants inside such as robbery, assault, or kidnapping," News 5 explained.
The report explained how Colorado law requires property owners to provide squatters with a 3-day written notice of intent to evict. After three days, owners can commence eviction proceedings that often take weeks.
If and when a property owner convinces a judge the squatters are not lawful residents, the sheriff will post a notice to vacate the premises. This buys the squatters 14-21 additional days before the sheriff sends deputies to remove them.
If squatters have no means of moving their furniture, clothing or other personal property from the residence, the property owner has a legal obligation to make the items available to the evicted squatters on the front yard for a "reasonable" time. "Reasonable" is not defined by Colorado law.
State Sen. Bob Gardner and State Rep. Dave Williams, Colorado Springs Republicans, plan to work on legislation in the coming session to enhance rights for property owners with residences taken over by squatters.
Colorado has among the fastest-growing homeless populations in the country. This poses the probability of more squatting. Laws that protect squatters probably attract more homeless to the state.
This dilemma seems patently absurd, but it is real. Just ask law enforcement, or property owners with intruders in their homes. Legislators need to resolve this, fast.
The Gazette editorial board