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Florida pastor who tried to house homeless arrested for theft

When the leader of a Florida church filed with the state to have some homeless people occupy two foreclosed homes, she thought that she was doing a legal act. And she says the Florida Property Appraiser's Office did not tell her any different. But the pastor and a member of her church have been arrested on grand theft charges.

The pastor and her congregant were attempting to take advantage of a legal concept known as "adverse possession." In general, adverse possession allows ownership of an abandoned piece of real estate to pass from the current owner to someone who repairs and occupies the property for a certain period of time with no objection from the owner. Florida recognizes adverse possession under a state statute that fixes the period of occupation at seven years and requires the occupant to pay property taxes.

The pastor found two empty houses and had the homeless people move in. She planned to pay the property taxes herself and filed paperwork with the Property Appraiser's Office, which apparently offered no objection. But when the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office found out in October, instead of merely ousting the house's occupants, deputies arrested the pastor and the congregant and charged them with grand theft, burglary and fraud.

The defendants have since filed suit against the sheriff's office. They say that they were arrested because they are black and the homes involved were in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. The pastor alleges that her public reputation was damaged by the arrest.

Neither the criminal nor the civil case has a court date scheduled.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, "Tampa pastor files lawsuit against Hillsborough sheriff's office," Jessica Vander Velde, Nov. 10, 2012

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