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Have property squatters? Call the sheriff

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Have property squatters? Call the sheriff

Christina Holt/News-Sun

As a property owner, imagine one day discovering squatters occupying your land or house. What would you do?

Lea County attorney John Caldwell recommends property owners who have squatters on their land to call the Lea County Sheriff’s Office and allege criminal trespass.

Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton also recommends calling the LCSO as soon as possible.

“My recommendation would be, if a landowner finds (squatters), you have literally days to contact us and get them removed,” Helton said.

The issue of individuals squatting on private land was brought to the attention of Lea County Commissioner District 5, Pat Sims.

“I had friends and neighbors call in about some squatters in Monument,” Sims said.

The issue was discussed at the May 9 and 23 regular commission meetings to get a better legal understanding about the matter.

The definition of a squatter is someone who is occupying an abandoned or vacant property without permission from the owner of the property, according to Caldwell.

And criminal trespass is defined in New Mexico Statute 1978 30-14-1 as knowingly entering or remaining on posted private property without possessing written permission from the owner or person in control.

“Violation of the statute is a misdemeanor and removing or tampering with the no trespass sign is a petty misdemeanor,” Caldwell said. “The word knowingly is very important because it’s a subjective standard. You may believe that someone’s trespassing on property, (but) they may be on the property thinking they have the right to be there.”

Large property owners face the challenge of not being able to constantly monitor all of their property at all times.

“As a rancher, it is hard to see all of your property and (squatters) can be there before you know it,” Lea County Commissioner District 1, Dean Jackson said.

One method for deterring unauthorized individuals from entering private property is by displaying no trespassing signs. Though, there are some legal requirements for land owners when posting no trespassing signs on their property.

Land owners must have no trespassing signs posted at every vehicular entrance to indicate the individual is knowingly on the property or fails to exit the property when told they are there illegally. In the absence of no trespassing signs, the property owner must tell the trespasser they are on the land without permission and request them to leave, according to Caldwell.

“Once that happens, then you can call the Sheriff’s department and a deputy can come and actually arrest the person,” Caldwell said.

Squatter issues often revolve around the length of time they have occupied the property and establishing residency.

Helton gave an example of a situation where squatters had been on a property for six weeks and established residency.

“How do you get residency on somebody’s private property? It’s not common sense.” Helton said. “It’s one of those areas that we feel today criminals have more rights than law abiding citizens.”

At this point, the situation transitions from criminal trespassing to the Landlord Tenant Act.

“The issue becomes that once they are there for a certain number of days, they are protected by the Landlord Tenant Act,” Caldwell said. “If the person who is squatting on the property says I have a lease with the owner of the property… then it’s probably going to be a civil matter. Unfortunately, in New Mexico, you can have a lease that is oral.”

Once it is determined to be a civil issue, officers cannot arrest the individuals for criminal trespass and the property owner will have to go through the eviction process.

Though, squatters cannot obtain property rights under the Landlord Tenant Act, according to Caldwell.

“Here in Lea County, the only way for someone to attain ownership of a property they have not purchased is through squatting and adverse possession,” Caldwell said.

Some of the elements of adverse possession includes the individual must occupy the land continuously for 10 years, the occupation must be open and obvious and property taxes must be paid by the occupant for those years, according to Caldwell.

“I think that in the state of New Mexico it’s going to be very hard to acquire title to property through squatting on it because you’ll have to satisfy adverse possession,” Caldwell said.

Though it can happen, as the Johnston family experienced who lived in Oklahoma and inherited a house in Carlsbad, KRQE News reported Nov. 2018.

“Complete strangers turned the Johnstons’ house into their home, acting like they owned it, even without a deed,” KRQE reported.

“It’s nothing new… we’ve been dealing with it the last couple of years. I get really frustrated over these perceived rights of squatters,” Helton said.

“The issue is growing in our country. It’s becoming a problem,” Sims told the News-Sun. He recommends calling the LCSO immediately when a property owner finds squatters.

Christina Holt’s email is reporter3@hobbsnews.com.

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