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‘Far more rights than legal homeowners:’ Bill cracks down on squatters in Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida lawmakers are hoping to crackdown on squatters.

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A bill nearing the finish line this session would make it easier for property owners to have squatters removed.

If someone breaks into your house while you’re home, you call the police and the intruder could face a slew of criminal charges.

But if that same person breaks into your home while you’re away and cooks up a fake lease, you could have to spend thousands to have them evicted in the courts.

That’s more or less the situation Patti Peeples found herself in last year.

Peeples was in the process of selling her rental property in Hogans Creek when she got an alarming call from a handyman last March.

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“Some pit bull puppies and the mother on the front porch,” said Peeples.

The home that was supposed to be vacant had multiple people inside.

When Peeples asked them to leave, they refused, so she called police.

But when officers arrived, the illegal tenants produced a fake lease agreement, which led police to deem the issue a civil matter.

“They said unfortunately, we have absolutely no jurisdiction,” said Peeples.

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Peeples spent weeks trying to make the squatters leave and was even threatened by them on multiple occasions.

$5,000 in attorneys fees later, and she finally got them out, but they left the house destroyed and covered in feces.

“I was left to clean up $40,000 worth of damage done to the home,” said Peeples testifying before a Senate committee earlier this year.

News of Peeples’ nightmare made it all the way to the State Capitol, where State Senator Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) agreed something needed to be done.

“This is a common sense thing and the unfortunate part is the way the laws are written,” said Perry.

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Perry’s bill would make it easier for property owners to petition their local sheriff to remove squatters.

If the squatter cant produce at least one of several forms of documentation proving they have a claim to live on the premises law enforcement would be empowered to remove them.

“We’ll relocate you from that house to jail,” said Perry.

The bill also creates new penalties for squatters who falsify documents like lease agreements or damage the home they’re in, like they did in Peeples’ case.

Peeples told Action News Jax, she’s hopeful if the bill makes it across the finish line, no Floridian will have experience what she went through ever again.

“Squatters have far more rights than legal homeowners and this is not just a problem right here with this house. It is a problem all over Jacksonville and in the State of Florida and in fact, all across the nation,” said Peeples.

The bill has just one more committee stop in both chambers before it will be ready for floor votes.

As for Patti, after fixing up the house she was able to find a buyer and sell the property as she’d originally set out to do.

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