Penal Code 647(e) | Squatting
Penal Code 647(e) | Squatting Laws in California
Squatting—the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space or building that a person does not own, rent or otherwise have permission to use—has a long and complicated history in California. While squatting is illegal under California law, enforcement and punishment of squatting varies depending on the situation. This article will examine the laws around squatting in California, including Penal Code 647(e), and discuss the pros, cons and implications of how these laws are applied.
What is California Penal Code 647(e)?
Section 647(e) of the California Penal Code makes it a misdemeanor to “lodge in any building, structure, vehicle, or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner or person entitled to the possession or in control of it.”
This means it is illegal in California to squat, or occupy any property without permission, whether it is public or private. A violation of this code is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 6 months in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both jail time and a fine.
History of Squatting Laws in California
California has had various laws prohibiting squatting going back to the late 1800s. After the Gold Rush, many people began squatting on private land without permission. In response, the California legislature made squatting a misdemeanor in 1885. In 1969, the prohibition on squatting was incorporated into the current Penal Code 647(e).
In 2010, Section 647(e) was amended to increase the maximum fine from $300 to $1,000. This change was in response to an increase in aggressive tactics used by some property owners to remove squatters.
Punishment and Enforcement of Squatting Laws
In most cases, squatters are simply removed from the property by law enforcement, and no charges are filed. Filing criminal charges under 647(e) occurs less frequently, and requires the cooperation of the property owner.
Factors that determine whether squatters will face criminal charges include:
- The nature of the property (private, public, residential, commercial, etc.)
- Whether the squatters are using the property for shelter vs. for other purposes
- Any damage or disruptions caused by the squatters
- Cooperation of the property owner in pressing charges
For example, authorities are less likely to charge squatters seeking shelter in a vacant commercial building than those using a property for illicit purposes. They also require cooperation from the property owner to gather evidence and testify in order for charges to be filed.
Squatting on Public vs. Private Property
Penal Code 647(e) prohibits squatting on private and public property without permission. However, enforcement against squatters on public property is less consistent than on private land.
Public agencies often rely on civil evictions rather than criminal charges to remove squatters from public spaces. There are also more protections for homeless people occupying public spaces.
For example, a court ruling in Tobe v. City of Santa Ana prohibited city governments from evicting homeless people from public land when no shelter space is available. This complicates enforcement of laws against squatting on public property.
Squatting in Foreclosed and Vacant Properties
One area where squatting laws are controversial is in foreclosed and vacant homes after the housing crash. With many homes sitting vacant after foreclosures, some activists encouraged homeless people and others to squat in these properties.
Law enforcement often treated squatters in foreclosed homes differently than other squatting cases. They were sometimes allowed to stay in vacant homes rather than be removed and charged as criminals. This was seen by some as a humane response to homelessness, while critics argued it encouraged breaking the law.
Banks and other property owners pushed back against these squatting practices with increased security and by pressing charges in some cases. But the large number of vacant properties made enforcement difficult.
Adverse Possession vs. Squatting
Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows a person to claim ownership of property they have occupied without permission for an extended period of time. This is different from squatting, which is occupying a property illegally without permission.
In California, adverse possession requires occupying the property for 5 years and paying property taxes. After this time, the adverse possessor can file a lawsuit to claim legal ownership. Unlike squatting, adverse possession requires meeting specific legal requirements.
Some squatters have tried to claim adverse possession to gain ownership of properties they occupied without permission. However, courts have largely rejected these claims, ruling that “bad faith” squatting does not qualify for adverse possession.
“Squatters rights” refers to protections that squatters receive under the law. For example, authorities generally require an eviction process with proper notice rather than immediate removal or arrest. There are also some protections against self-help evictions by property owners.
However, squatters have very limited legal rights in California compared to tenants. They do not have rights to the property by occupying it, nor can they claim adverse possession in most cases.
Defenses Against Squatting Charges
There are few defenses against a charge under Penal Code 647(e) for squatting. The main defenses include:
- Necessity – Arguing the unlawful conduct was necessary to avoid imminent harm. This is difficult to prove in squatting cases.
- Lack of notice – Claiming you were not given proper notice to leave the property before criminal charges were filed.
- Permission – Arguing you had verbal or written permission to occupy the property.
- Mistake – Claiming you mistakenly believed you had the legal right to use the property.
These defenses require specific evidence and carry a high burden of proof. It is very difficult to beat a squatting charge without clear documentation you had permission to occupy the property.
Implications of Squatting Laws and Enforcement
There are many complex implications around the enforcement of laws against squatting in California:
- Laws must balance property rights of owners with humanitarian concerns over shelter.
- Uneven enforcement can undermine the rule of law and encourage illegal activity.
- Squatters are sometimes seeking shelter as homeless persons rather than intentionally breaking the law.
- Allowing squatting can lead to unsafe and unsanitary conditions in buildings.
- Selective enforcement against marginalized groups raises fair housing concerns.
- Lack of enforcement on public land has led to large encampments with health and safety issues.
There are good-faith arguments on all sides of this issue. The challenge is finding solutions that are both humane and maintain rule of law. For example, increasing shelter space reduces the need for unauthorized encampments, while measured enforcement ensures shared public spaces remain safe and accessible.
Squatting on private or public property without permission is illegal under California Penal Code 647(e). However, enforcement of anti-squatting laws is uneven, ranging from eviction to criminal charges depending on the circumstances. There are limited defenses against squatting charges, and few legal protections for squatters.
The complex issues around homelessness and use of public space contribute to difficulties in applying squatting laws consistently. There are reasonable debates around finding the right balance between property rights, rule of law, and humanitarian concerns. The challenge is crafting solutions that are both compassionate and maintain a shared sense of order and responsibility for community space.