Bill protecting homeowners from squatters passes in House commit - KOAA.com | Continuous News | Colorado Springs and Pueblo

Bill protecting homeowners from squatters passes in House committee

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Lawmakers in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted 9-0 Thursday to move forward with Senate Bill 15

The bill was prompted by a series of News 5 investigations exposing squatters taking advantage of a loophole in state law. They break into homes, move their stuff in and simply refuse to leave. To make matters worse, when homeowners call law enforcement, police treat the matter as "civil" and refer the property owner to eviction court. 

Unfortunately, homeowners trying to gain possession of their properties often wait weeks and in some cases, months for the eviction to be executed. 

By the time sheriff's deputies show up to kick squatters out, they've already caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages. 

In every case we've reviewed, the homeowners find themselves responsible for repairs while the squatters simply walk away without any consequences. 

Initially, sponsors of Senate Bill 15 wanted to give police immediate power to remove squatters without waiting for a court-ordered eviction. However, the Colorado District Attorney's Council, Criminal Defense Bar, and Disability Law Colorado argued this would have unintended consequences. Representatives from all three agencies expressed concerns that enacting the bill without any amendments would eliminate "due process" and the right for "squatters" to present their case in court. 

Disability Law Colorado testified in March that Senate Bill 15 could impact people with disabilities who may be taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords who would use the bill to illegally evict actual tenants they don't like as a result of their disability.  

Senate Bill 15 faced opposition almost immediately after it was introduced, but it ultimately gained bipartisan support before being passed on to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee which some call the "kill committee" because many bills don't make it out alive. 

The House committee expressed major concerns in March with the language in the bill, but decided to postpone a vote pending changes. 

Thursday morning, Rep. Larry Liston (R-Colorado Springs) and Rep. Dave Williams (R-Colorado Springs) presented their revisions to the committee for vote. 

Under the revised bill, the civil eviction process would remain in effect. However, a new mandate would require squatter eviction cases to be heard "no later than two court days after the filing of the motion." 

The amendments are as follows: 

"Should this bill pass, a squatter could be out within 48 hours," Rep. Liston said. "This is a major issue not just in southern Colorado, but all over the state. They (lawmakers) couldn't kill it. There would be a tremendous public backlash if they did." 

Under Senate Bill 15, squatters can still face criminal charges for vandalism if they knowingly destroy property. 

The bill now moves on to the House floor for a second reading. 

The 2018 legislative session ends May 9. 

Original story from April 11, 2018: 

News 5 Investigates spent 9 months exposing a "loophole" in the law that allows anyone to legally occupy your home---rent free!

Our series of investigations prompted state lawmakers to try and solve this problem impacting innocent families in our community, but will their solution actually pass? 

For months, we've aired numerous stories showing the damage squatters leave behind after taking over homes in southern Colorado. 

"I am extremely frustrated," Roland Hawkins told News 5 in 2017 after squatters moved into his house while he was on a bike tour in Utah. 

"I'm a legal owner of the property but I can't even access it because squatters have more rights than I do," Hawkins said. 

Homeowners have trouble understanding why law enforcement can't do anything to help them get their property back. 

"These laws need to be changed," Hawkins said. "They need to be looked at. They need to be reconsidered." 

Sheriff Bill Elder agrees that a squatting law needs to be enacted. 

"They (squatters) know the law has a gray area," Elder said. "They know that there are loopholes that allow them to stay and the worst case scenario is they are going to get booted out. They are not going to get charged because we cannot prove the case of criminal trespass." 

Even though squatters don't own the home or pay rent, Elder says it's extremely difficult to arrest and remove them from a property if they've already moved their stuff in. Elder says squatters will often argue they have "legal rights" to the property and at that point, the case turns from criminal to civil. 

"We end up getting in the middle of trying to settle a dispute between the two and it doesn't work," Elder said. "The cops know that they are not supposed to get in the middle of a civil dispute like that. They refer them to the courts and that's the frustration with homeowners." 

News 5 Investigates reviewed squatter eviction cases and discovered on multiple occasions, it has taken weeks or even months for an eviction to be served. This means the squatters are legally allowed to stay in homes while the rightful owners are forced to find housing elsewhere. 

Under the initial version Senate Bill 15, law enforcement would be given immediate power to kick squatters out without having to wait for a court-ordered eviction. However, some critics argue this would eliminate "due process" and violate the rights of squatters. 

"Put yourself in the position of a homeowner who is away from home and comes home to find strangers in their home," Elder said. "Now you have to take it upon yourself to go to court. Ask yourself, what if this happened to you? That's the problem. People don't understand how common this is." 

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office says about a quarter of all evictions they serve involve individuals who are not the homeowner or do not have a valid lease. 

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