“Is there something I can help you with?” is the magic rhetorical question which helps to ward of cops, city officials, and sometimes a hostile neighbor.
When a government official approaches you at your squat and you repeat these magic words it sets the tone of the dynamic. Instantly you go from a suspicious character to the one who is in charge. The official then switches from their planned accusations and interrogation to something else.
The reason this magic phrase does this is because it exudes confidence in the fact that you are in charge here, and that you are the one with the power to render assistance. Instantly the power dynamic has changed.
Often an official will simply respond, “No sir/mam.” and leave.
Other times they will spontaneously render useful information, “Well, we had a complaint from a neighbor that there were people squatting this building.”
You can then revert to the jedi mind trick, “These aren’t the squatters your looking for.” I’m serious, you can then say something like, “I haven’t seen anyone on the property, and I’ve been here all day.” or something like that.
Of course the magic words don’t always provide instant victory. If the official stays around and tries to figure out what you are doing or who you are the magic words have merely given you an advantage in the situation which is still invaluable.
What to do next?
Usually the first test a squatter must pass when establishing a squat is to deal with the cops. If the cops never come by then count yourself lucky, but everyone should be prepared for that moment even if it never arrives. There are a number of strategies for dealing with the cops that I’ve seen, and these are the pros and cons as I see them:
Of course I can’t think of a time in which this is a good idea. Despite this you may be surprised how many oogles sit on the stoop of their squat drinking 40’s and then run away and jump a fence the moment a cop rolls up. You have instantly gone from a suspect to a criminal in the cops mind, and you’ve blown up your squat as well. This is why it is important to have a plan. Almost any plan is better than simply freaking out.
When the cops show up some squatters lock the door and pretend there not home. This is only bad if the cops know you’re in the house which is technically not hiding, but rather barricading. If the cops do not suspect that you’re in the house and leave then you had better come up with a better plan because they will be coming back. I do not recommend hiding because the cops leave thinking that there is something weird going on and will likely be more suspicious of you when the return.
Your probably better off answering the door and saying, “Is there something I can help you with?” You can always slam the door and barricade yourself in. (see below)
Plead the Fifth
O.K. so you have attended some radical skill share for protests and stuff like that, and the person who seemed like an expert said, “Never talk to the cops ever, no matter what.” Although this is generally a good idea I believe squatting is an exception. The reason is that in most situations your objective is to escape without getting arrested. In a squatting situation there is no escape because the cops know where you live. If you refuse to talk to them they MAY leave the house, but they will probably be curious enough to do some research and find out your squatting. Alternately, they may just assume your squatting which will result in efforts by the cops and/or city to remove you and your eventual arrest.
It is possible however if you are artful with communication skills to talk to the cops without saying anything. This is the closest you’ll get to pleading the fifth without calling attention to yourself. Here are some examples:
1. Socratic Method (respond with questions/interrogate the interrogator)
Cop: “Do you have permission from the owner to be on the property?”
Squatter: “Why do you ask?”
2. Evasion (respond to questions without addressing the underlying suspician)
Cop: “What’s are you doing here?”
Squatter: “I was about to do some gardening.”
3. Circumlocution (responding in a manner that does not concede or divulge certain facts)
Cop: “When did you purchase the property?”
Squatter: “I acquired the property last month.”
Cop: “Why isn’t your name listed in the property records.”
Squatter: “We haven’t filed the paperwork yet. These things take time.”
(italics added to show that the cop used specific language to corner the squatter while the response is more general conforming to”Be the Owner” below)
4. Diversion (changing the subject without responding)
Cop: “What’s going on here?”
Squatter: “Hey, do you have any information about the local neighborhood association?”
One way to be prepared is to imagine all the scenarios that may unfold regarding interaction with officials and then perform improv skits with your fellow squatters. In this way you can practice your communication skills and learn to anticipate scenarios. This may sound silly, but it is very useful.
After every role play, you should talk about what went well, what went wrong, and how the situation could have improved if things were done differently.
Lying to the cops is not illegal. Actually, lying is only illegal in certain situations such as perjury and fraud. Despite this lying can come back to haunt you.
The most common lie is, “I have permission from the owner.” This often works temporarily, but often the official will contact the owner and your squat is most likely blown. (see my other entry When The Property Owner Arrives)
The other way lies come back to haunt you is if you are in court and want to testify. Any and all lies you have told can then be brought against you in an exception to the hearsay rule. Generally, lying is not a good idea, and usually only happens because someone is not prepared. Proper role play, as stated above, can help a squatter navigate a conversation with an official without lying and without divulging that you are a squatter.
Barricade Yourself In
I’ve never heard of this working. The cops just call more cops, and next thing you know your on the evening news. This is great if you want attention and don’t mind blowing up your squat. This is standard for protest squats and banner drop squats, but this rarely works if you want to live somewhere. The only way this works is if you have enough community support. This may happen over time so I’ll try to keep an open mind.
Be the Owner
California Civil Code section 1006 states:
“Occupancy for any period confers a title sufficient against
all except the state and those who have title by prescription, accession, transfer, will, or succession; but the title conferred by occupancy is not a sufficient interest in real property to enable the occupant or the occupant's privies to commence or maintain an action to quiet title, unless the occupancy has ripened into title by prescription."
Because of this squatting a property is a form of ownership in that property. Therefore, it is totally legitimate to state that you are the owner of the property you are squatting as long as it is abandoned and you believe that the owner is dead, disappeared, or disinterested in the property.
Of course when claiming ownership this may lead to someone researching the record title of the property. There are some provisional type documents one can record to establish a title by squatting. The first is a “Homestead Declaration” which can be followed by a “Notice of Intent to Preserve Interest”.
Also, if one of your fellow squatters does not want to pursue title by adverse possession (see my blog entry What is Adverse Possession?) then that person can sign and record a “Quitclaim Deed” transferring their interest in the property to you.
There are other documents that can be filed, but these are the simplest and least risky.
The Straw Man
What I call the straw man strategy is simply to refer all questions to a person who is never around. This could be someone who opened the squat with you, but decides to stay off the property simply to be the straw man or perhaps for other reasons such as school, work, family, etc.
This could also be someone who is not involved in the squat who merely is temporarily assuming title to the property.
Then, when the official arrives everyone can simply respond, “I just work here. Talk to the Joe (straw man) the owner.”
Now if the official looks up Joe and discovers that Joe is not the owner then they are in a quandry because they can’t find Joe, and they can’t blame his employees for a discrepancy in title.
Of course you can file a Quitclaim Deed declaring Joe the owner, and sign a “Property Management” contract declaring you the property manager for the next five years at which time Joe will transfer you title to the property under certain conditions. If you do this then Joe has record title of sorts, and you have a contract granting his/her permission to be there.
If you actually transfer title through a Quitclaim Deed be sure to do that with someone you trust, and make sure the contract is well drafted so that you have ownership transferred to you upon completing the adverse possession qualifications
Of course there are many factors outside of you control such as the history of the property, the attitudes of the neighbors, the priorities of the officials you interact with, or current events. Sometimes the least prepared squatters succeed while those who plan for months in advance fail. Despite this having a good plan can improve the odds.
Also, I disclaim any overt or implied assurance that any of my suggestions will work out or won’t get you into even deeper trouble. Don’t blame me if your squat gets busted or you get arrested. Follow my suggestions at your own risk!
Use your brain. Your strategy depends on the situation you’re in, and only you know what that is.