David Cooper, 26, is an example of how dangerous a little legal knowledge can be. The Texas man was arrested after squatting in a $405,000 Arlington home after the family left for Houston so that the mother could receive cancer treatment. Cooper said that he read about adverse possession in the law library at Southern Methodist University. He drew up an affidavit stating that he was asserting ownership by adverse possession and that was enough during an initial visit by the police. When the family arrived, however, the police finally put an end to the claim and criminally charged him with felony theft and burglary. His wife, Jasmine Williams Cooper, was charged with burglary. A jury convicted Cooper but acquitted his wife (after Cooper insisted that she did not stay at the house with him).
Cooper says that he came across the property while working on lawn care in the area.
Cooper trimmed the trees and cleaned up the property around what he claimed was an abandoned house. The actual owner, Raymond Dell, said that they were simply in Houston for the medical treatments of his wife. Dell then discovered his furniture was missing and his family’s clothes were stuffed in garbage bags.
Cooper insisted in court that “I wasn’t trying to take no one’s house. I was just trying to take the property under adverse possession.” Texas law allows people to claim abandoned property if they maintain it and pay taxes on it.
Notably, prosecutors have instructed the clerk to stop accepting adverse possession affidavits as “fraudulent” after dozens of such claims arose.
Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code Sec.16.021 defines adverse possession as “an actual and visible appropriation of real property, commenced and continued under a claim of right that is inconsistent with and is hostile to the claim of another person.” This requires actual possession of the property, continuously possession, and the assertion of a claim of right that excludes all others.
Sec. 16.025 states:
(a) A person [i.e., the original owner] must bring suit not later than five years after the day the cause of action accrues to recover real property held in peaceable and adverse possession by another who:
(1) cultivates, uses, or enjoys the property;
(2) pays applicable taxes on the property; and
(3) claims the property under a duly registered deed.
(b) This section does not apply to a claim based on a forged deed or a deed executed under a forged power of attorney.
The assumption by people like Cooper is that during that period you are simply fulfilling your statutory obligations of adversity. Police view it as burglary.