California likely leads the country when it comes to the issue of people squatting in or on property owned by someone else. Over the course of a number of years, squatters have taken possession of vacant homes in many of the larger urban areas across the state. More recently, homeless encampments have started to spring up on private land in different locations across the state, including throughout much of Southern California. These situations have raised the need to understand squatter’s rights versus landowner’s rights in California. 

Overview of Landowner’s Property Rights

If a person owns his or her real estate in what is known as “fee simple,” that person (or legal entity) has a complete ownership interest in a parcel of real estate. As a matter of common legal practice, most people who own real estate – residential, commercial, and industrial – possess that real estate in “fee simple.”

When a person has this type of legal interest in real estate, that individual has the ability to keep trespassers off of the property. This can require a property owner to take some proactive, assertive steps in regard to keeping unwanted individuals off of the property. 

If a property owner fails to take affirmative steps to protect against unwanted entry by others onto real estate or into a structure (like a residence), a person who otherwise might have been considered a trespasser may end up being classified as what commonly is known as a squatter. In California, as is the case across the country, a squatter can end up amassing some legal rights by the virtue of being on a parcel of real estate or in a structure like a residential property. This includes homeless people who establish a campsite on private property. 

Overview of Squatter’s Rights

From a legal standpoint, a so-called squatter on someone else’s property gains a legal interest via what is known as adverse possession. There are a couple of legal requirements that must be met in order for a person who otherwise would be a trespasser to garner some rights through adverse possession. These are:

  • Openly occupying real estate (like a homeless person setting up a camp)
  • Occupation against the interests of the landowner, which is known as “hostile occupation” (a landowner hasn’t given permission for the occupation of the property)
  • The open, hostile occupation of the property must last for a continuous term of five years 

The odds of a homeless encampment remaining on private property is virtually nil. That type of situation simply isn’t going to happen. Thus, a person setting up a homeless camp on another’s private property won’t end up in a position to claim an ownership interest in real estate. What can happen is that a person who establishes a homeless camp on someone else’s private property might end up in a position to be able to assert certain rights as a tenant. 

Gaining Tenant’s Rights in California

In California, if a person establishes a homeless camp on someone else’s private property, and the owner doesn’t take immediate steps to remove the trespasser, the individual squatting on the property can amass some ability to assert that he or she has interests like a tenant. The situation may require a landowner to take steps mandated under California landlord and tenant law. In other words, a landowner may have to file a regular eviction case in the court in the county where the real estate is located. 

This can be bypassed in counties like Los Angeles County that have a trespass arrest authorization protocol, which is discussed in a moment. As will be seen, if this protocol is followed by a landowner, a trespassing person who created a homeless camp on private property not only can removed, but arrested as well. 

Trespass Warning Procedure in Los Angeles

The City of Los Angeles has established a specific trespass warning procedure that can be useful in protecting against homeless encampments on private property. Some other California cities have adopted similar trespass warning procedures. Walking through the Los Angeles trespass warning process can be helpful not only to understand the procedures in that city but in a good many other locales as well. 

At the heart of the Los Angeles trespass warning procedure are two elements:

  • Use of no trespassing signs
  • Filing of a Trespass Arrest Authorization Form

In order for a no trespassing sign to be effective at spurring the removal and arrest of a person on private property, the sign must specifically reference:

THIS PROPERTY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC. No Entry Without Permission. L.A.M.C. SEC. 41.24

A property owner must also complete the Trespass Arrest Authorization Form. The Trespass Arrest Authorization Form can be downloaded here: Los Angeles Trespass Arrest Authorization Form.

In order for the form to be effective, it must be filed with the precinct division of the Los Angeles Police Department serving the area in which the property is located. The form filing is good for a maximum of one year. A new form must be filed every 12 months. 

When this type of trespassing sign is posted, and the referenced form properly filed, the landowner can call the police when a trespasser is on the premises, including a person (or persons) who set up a homeless camp on the property. 

The police will give the trespassers 24 hours to vacate the premises. The police will return to the property at the end of that time period. If the trespassers have not vacated the property, they can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor crime of trespass. 

Removing a Squatter From Property

If the no trespassing protocols of the kind discussed a moment ago are in place, the removal of a squatter from the property can be a fairly easy process. This can be a relatively easy process provided a landowner initiates the removal process immediately after a squatter, including a homeless camp situation, appears on the property.

If a landowner hasn’t followed this no trespassing protocol, or if a city lacks this type of legal structure, the removal of a squatter, including a homeless encampment, becomes more complicated. Even in the no trespassing protocol discussed a moment ago, if a considerable amount of time passes from the moment a trespasser or homeless person encroaches onto the premises, removing a squatter becomes more complicated.