Squatters have no actual rights in Oregon, but the process to evict them can take so long they may as well.
What starts as a simple trespassing matter can turn into weeks of court hearings and, for some landowners, thousands of dollars in legal costs.
This is not because Oregon laws favor squatters. In fact, squatters are explicitly exempt from the protections afforded to people who have agreements to reside on a landowner’s property.
But squatters can claim they have such protections — even when they don’t. At this point, unless it is irrefutably clear a squatter is trespassing, police can no longer intervene and the matter must be taken up in civil court.
Thus the illusion of squatter’s rights begins.
It started with an RV
This was what George Rozsasi attempted after he moved his RV onto a gravel lot on Altamont Drive just down the block from the Klamath County Fairgrounds. Rozsasi had fallen on hard times and didn’t want to talk about it. He initially refused to be interviewed until he could see some ID, believing this reporter to be a spy for the landowner.
After viewing a press pass, Rozsasi explained he moved onto the property in May of 2016. Before this, Rozsasi was the owner of Mid-Town Apartments, on Walnut Avenue, from 2003 to 2015, according to public records. He sold the property at a $200,000 loss and, again, did not want to describe what happened.
After moving his RV behind a blue shed on the Altamont Drive property, Rozsasi said the landowner made no immediate effort to evict him. He claimed, as a squatter, this gave him the right to remain.
“I’ve been here over a year and Brady didn’t ask me to leave,” said Rozsasi.
He was referring to landowner Patrick Brady, a Bend man who works frequently in Alaska and is not always around to check on his properties. Brady did eventually ask Rozsasi to vacate, but more on that later.
First, a review of Rozsasi’s claim that, as a squatter, he had the right to remain because of how long he had lived on the property.
A look at the past
John Powell, trial court administrator for Klamath County Circuit Court, said many states in the Western U.S. do have laws where squatters are entitled to a parcel of land after a certain time. He said these are a carryover of policies written when settlers were migrating westward during the 19th century.
“The railroads would have large properties people would squat on and the railroads would not necessarily care,” said Powell of the origins of such laws.
Acquiring property this way is called adverse possession. In Oregon, a squatter has a right to adverse possession after living on a property continuously and exclusively for at least 10 years, among other requirements. Any time less than a decade doesn’t cut it.
Powell said an agreement with the landowner, written or verbal, is the only defense of a claim to property, though he advised against verbal agreements. But he said a squatter who claims a right to a property must still be disproven in civil court for the landowner to evict them.
No immediate action
The unfortunate landowner in this situation was Brady, who purchased the property in 2009. At the time the land was contaminated by a previous petroleum spill and Brady cleaned the soil to re-sell the property.
After learning Rozsasi was squatting there, Brady called police and was advised to begin the civil process for eviction. However, Brady said he saw nothing preventing deputies from immediately arresting Rozsasi for trespassing and believed a landowner’s word should have been enough to refute claims of squatter’s rights.
“Rozsasi was simply manipulating our law enforcement officers so he could have a rent-free place to stay,” said Brady.
A conflict of rights
Lt. Randall Swan, with the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement is not always in a position to determine if a potential civil claim is legitimate or not. He said if it can be proven that the squatter is trespassing, such as a confession, they can take action then and there. But if the squatter claims to have rights to the land, then the civil process must be followed.
“Our hands are completely tied,” he said.
Swan said his deputies try to resolve the matter on-scene if they can and convince the squatter to leave, which he said generally works. But taking the landowner at their word is not always possible because situations do exist when a perceived squatter may have a legitimate claim to tenancy.
“There’s too many different scenarios,” said Swan. “… Everything’s a case-by-case basis.”
Up to the courts
So Brady began the civil process and said, in the end, he was glad he did. To evict an unlawful occupant in Oregon, a landowner must give the occupant a notice to vacate within 24 hours, which Brady did June 18.
Rozsasi did not vacate and Brady filed a civil complaint July 18. By Aug. 2, a trial was held before Judge Marci Adkisson, which Rozsasi did not attend, and Adkisson ruled in Brady’s favor by default.
Adkisson told Brady she was personally frustrated with people who claim they have squatter’s rights and attempt to take advantage of landowners.
“There’s no such thing as squatter’s rights in the state of Oregon,” she said.
Some things should change
Adkisson said such cases should not see her courtroom because squatters should be criminally prosecuted for trespassing, not allowed to exploit a landowner in civil court. She said sometimes law enforcement should consult the district attorney’s office before determining a trespassing case is a civil matter, and said they would benefit from training with the DA to better-understand application of landlord-tenant laws.
“They’re not lawyers; sometimes I think they don’t consult their lawyers,” she said.
Adkisson also said, for absentee landowners like Brady, it is important for them to secure their properties and post “No trespassing” signs. Rozsasi said, among other reasons he felt justified in moving onto the lot, Brady had no fence around the property and no signs prohibiting trespassers.
Sheriff's deputies take action
After ruling in Brady’s favor, Adkisson signed an order directing Rozsasi to vacate the property within four days. This seemed like the end of the road until Brady learned, if Rozsasi did not follow Adkisson’s order, Brady would need to return to court for a writ of execution allowing law enforcement to physically remove the squatter.
Brady said this was frustrating, but he was back at the courthouse Thursday to receive the writ. Deputies arrived at the property around noon to compel Rozsasi to leave and, rather anti-climatically, the squatter drove his RV away with little resistance.
“I was hoping he would get thrown in jail for trespassing,” said Brady. “… This was a pure and simple trespassing issue that should have been handled the first call.”
Glad for support
Brady said, though he did not agree with law enforcement’s initial response, he said deputies acted “professionally and graciously” throughout the process. He also thanked residents living nearby who supported his efforts to clean up the property.
“The people in Klamath Falls are really good people,” he said.
One such resident was Doug White, who said he was concerned about where Rozsasi would go next and if he may victimize someone unable to evict him the way Brady did.
“He’s gonna go park someplace else if he’s allowed to keep that motor home,” said White.
And though he understood Adkisson’s advice for landowners to secure their property, he said people like Brady should not have to in the first place.
“He should be able to leave his property and everyone should leave it alone,” said White.
With Rozsasi off the property, Brady said he was glad the civil process went well and said it was easy enough for a layperson to follow. Brady said, if he had gone through an attorney, he planned to spend roughly $10,000 rather than the few hundred dollars in filing fees he ended up paying, not to mention travel time and expenses.
Powell said landowners who do need legal assistance but are unable to afford a lawyer can find help through resources such as Legal Aid Services of Oregon, which has an office at 832 Klamath Ave. Powell also said many attorneys offer free consultations and, on some occasions, may work for free. Powell said he and other court employees are not allowed to provide legal advice and encouraged landowners in doubt to call a lawyer.
When commenting on the length of the eviction process — which was nearly two months for Brady — Powell said this may be frustrating for landowners who want faster results. However, he said Oregon’s landlord-tenant laws were written to actually expedite the process and operate faster than other civil cases.
“You don’t want an eviction case to take six months,” he said.
Brady said the entire process was a “positive learning experience” and he hoped cleaning his property would be beneficial for the whole neighborhood. Brady said clean properties discourage those who would pose a nuisance from staying and allow the area to grow in a positive direction.