FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - A North Texas couple accused of "squatting" face up to life in prison if convicted of stealing furniture and clothing from a home while the owner was in Houston for cancer treatments.
David Cooper, 26, and Jasmine Williams, 23, both of DeSoto, each are charged with one count of burglary of a habitation, which carries a maximum 20-year prison term, and one count of property theft over $200,000, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Jury selection for their trial started Monday afternoon in Fort Worth.
In October 2011, Cooper paid $16 to file what is known as an affidavit of adverse possession with the county clerk's office, claiming ownership of the $405,000, 4,320-square-foot home in Arlington. The obscure Texas law allows people to claim rights to otherwise unclaimed land after a period of time, typically 10 years, as long they maintain it and pay taxes on it.
It's often used to resolve disputes between homeowners over driveways, lawns or other property with shared boundaries -- but dozens of people in North Texas have started trying to use the law to file claims on foreclosed or temporarily empty homes.
Defense attorney Deborah Goodall says Cooper performed upkeep on the property and intended to live in the home.
"Our position is that you cannot commit burglary" if you have filed an affidavit of adverse possession, Goodall told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Burglary requires you to enter and the intent is to commit another offense, such as theft."
Prosecutors are expected to show evidence that the couple broke into the home while the owner was in Houston receiving chemotherapy treatments.
Arlington police said they believed the couple watched for weeks to ensure that the homeowners were away, then tried to claim ownership and looted it. Many valuables worth up to $250,000 were removed from the home, including furniture and clothing, police said.
A year ago, Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon deemed adverse possession affidavits "fraudulent" and ordered the county clerk's office to stop accepting them. Dozens of people had taken ownership of more than $8 million in Tarrant County properties.
As of September, 17,000 property owners had signed up to receive alerts if someone files paperwork on their property.
The claims became popular last year, particularly after one man paid $16 to file a one-page claim to an empty, $340,000 home in the upscale Dallas suburb of Flower Mound. Kenneth Robinson placed a "No Trespassing" sign in the window, invited TV cameras inside for a tour and created a website where he offered an e-book and training sessions for would-be squatters.
Robinson apparently inspired dozens of imitators who moved into Dallas-Fort Worth area homes -- some of which were still occupied. After a bank's attorney went to court to have Robinson kicked out, he left on his own in February -- about eight months after he moved in.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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