Adverse possession - squatting in an empty house - is on the rise

Polk County has second case in a month

LAKELAND, Fla. - As a homeowners association president, Danny Rodriguez knows most of his neighbors.  So when word got out that someone had moved into a house that had been sitting vacant for some time, he started doing some checking with the property appraiser's office about the home at 6861 Echo Lane.

"I knew a little bit about adverse possession just from doing some research," Rodriguez said.  "You need to be in the home for seven years.  I knew they weren't here for seven years," he said.

Cherie Fields, 25, and her husband, Owen Fields, 27, were arrested and charged with burglary and grand theft.  Their first court appearance is on Friday.

Adverse possession is a old Florida law dating back 100-years, and it applied to unoccupied farmland.  The law allowed someone who cared for the land for at least seven years to acquire it.  The concept has been circulating the internet as a means for squatters to obtain a house for free.

The only problem:  law enforcement views it as stealing.  Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was disappointed to hear that one of the accused squatters, Cherie Fields, was a teacher at Ft. Meade High School.

"Come on, girl," Judd said.  "You've got a college education.  You should know better than that.  But anyway, we gave her a field trip to the county jail," the sheriff said.

It's the second squatter case in the county in the last month.  In both instances, Judd suspects the people involved got the idea of adverse possession from websites online.

"Of course, we all know if it's on the internet it's got to be true," Judd said sarcastically.  "What they didn't see on the internet was my facebook page that says we will put you in jail."

Meanwhile, Rodriguez credits residents who noticed a locksmith changing the locks on the vacant home, and a moving truck unloading furniture into the house.  It all happened after dark.

"Somebody was up and saw them, and that's how we got the ball rolling to get them out of here," Rodriguez said.

"We work hard for our homes and what we have, and it's not fair for someone to just come in and take someone's possession like that."

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