**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer. These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****
Going onto somebody’s property without permission is trespassing, one of the distinct actions that is a civil wrong as well as a crime. It only has to happen once to be illegal.
As a civil offense, trespass is negligently or intentionally entering someone else’s property or even having your possessions on somebody else’s property without permission.[i] Homeless people are not likely to be sued in civil court for trespass because all that the property owner could get from the suit would be money, which homeless people generally do not have, and maybe a court order saying that the trespasser is not allowed to go on the property again.
The only practical use for the civil court order would be to present it as proof in a criminal case of defiant trespass which is trespass made worse because the trespasser ignored a “do not enter” warning.[ii] Since that warning could just be a sign or a fence or a simple statement from the property owner, rather than a court order, there really is no reason for anyone to bring a civil trespass claim against a homeless person.
Regular criminal trespass, as opposed to the kind that defies a warning, can be charged when someone merely “enters or surreptitiously remains in any building or occupied structure”[iii] without permission. Both of the criminal forms of trespass can result in punishment to the trespasser, at least the punishment of eviction. Still, there are usually defenses for every crime.
In trespass crimes, unlike so many others, there is a defense that is favorable to the homeless: when a privately owned building has been abandoned, the Model Penal Code says that being in it without permission is not trespassing.[iv] On the other hand, not every state’s trespassing law includes this abandoned building exception.
To defend a trespassing charge on the grounds that the building was deserted or abandoned, it is necessary to look at similar cases in the state where the charge was brought. Those cases will demonstrate important legal requirements such as how long an owner has to have been absent for a place to be considered abandoned in that state. They will also identify any clues that should have informed an intruder whether or not the place was abandoned. Summaries of cases are published in case digest (i.e. indexes to cases) published by West Publishing, the primary publisher of U.S. case law. Cases about trespassing in abandoned building are listed under “key 79” within the topic of Trespass.
The exception almost never applies to government-owned buildings.[v] Additionally, governments have an arsenal of reasons, beyond trespass, to keep people out of their buildings. They can use their condemned building codes or their health or fire codes. There’s always a criminal mischief or loitering charge that can apply to people who won’t follow police orders to leave a place. There might even be a specific statute or ordinance declaring it illegal to occupy a city, county, or state owned empty building.
Some case examples show how homeless squatters and municipalities have used the legal system to dispute the squatters’ occupation of abandoned buildings. In New York, the city evicted a group of homeless people who had not only occupied an unused and decrepit city building for nearly six months, but had actually improved the building and made it usable by installing new plumbing and electrical systems all by themselves. The court upheld the eviction noting that the plumbing and electrical work were not necessarily up to code and declaring that the squatters simply had no legal right to occupy those premises.[vi]
In the town of Brookhaven Long Island, homeless squatters in a building complex responded to an immediate forced eviction by asserting that their due process[vii] and fair housing[viii] rights had been violated. The due process claim was that they were entitled to notice and a hearing before being evicted. The fair housing claim was that they were unfairly targeted because of being Latino. The federal court held that since the squatters did not have a legal right to be on the property, they were not entitled to due process. However, since the evictions truly did target only Latinos who would suffer irreparable injury by being put out, the squatters were allowed to pursue their fair housing claim.[ix]
There’s a charming historical case out of Boston in which the city ordered a squatter to vacate one of its buildings. When he wouldn’t leave, the city ordered him to pay rent. He refused to pay the rent, so the city took him to court. The court found that since the squatter’s occupancy was illegal, he wasn’t obligated to pay any rent.[x]
[i] 87 CJS “Trespass”.
[ii] Model Penal Code §221.2(2) (1962), defiant trespass happens when “knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, [someone] enters or remains in any place as to which notice against trespass is given by: (a) actual communication to the actor; or (b) posting in a manner prescribed by law or reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders; or (c) fencing or other enclosure manifestly designed to exclude intruders.”
[iii] Model Penal Code §221.2(1) (1962).
[iv] Model Penal Code §221.2(3) (1962), “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution under this section that a building …was not occupied.”
[v] Mary K. Cunningham et al., De Facto Shelters: Homeless Living in Vacant Public Housing Units, (Urban Institute 2005). This is a research study about homeless squatters in Chicago and serves as a good example of how public authorities deal with people living in abandoned public buildings. Available at http://www.urban.org/uploadedPDF/411144_defacto_shelters.pdf.
[vi] Paulino v. Wright, 620 N.Y.S.2d. 363 (N.Y. App. Div. 1994).
[vii] U.S. Const. amend. XIV.
[viii] 42 U.S.C. §3601 et seq. (2007). “The Fair Housing Act” and the “Fair Housing Amendments Act” are combined in this part of the United States Code.
[ix] Valdez v. Brookhaven 05-CV-4323 (E.D.N.Y. 2005) also at 2005 WL 3454708.
[x] O’Brien v. Ball, 119 Mass. 28 (Mass. 1875).