PHILADELPHIA – City Council on Thursday passed a bill that clarifies the definition of “criminal and defiant trespasser” – commonly known as an “illegal squatter” – in an effort to ensure that rightful home dwellers and innocent victims do not face criminal penalties, while those who willfully trespass are prosecuted.
Bill 180741, introduced by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, improves upon legislation that was adopted by City Council in June. It acknowledges that in Philadelphia there are numerous circumstances where individuals have a legal right to reside in a home but are not the record owner, something that the previous legislation failed to do. Such circumstances include, but are not limited to: tenants with an oral or lost written lease, heirs of a deceased owner who may have a “tangled title,” a former owner of a residential property sold at tax sale claiming the right to redeem under Pennsylvania law, an individual who is a buyer of the property under an installment sales contract, or an individual with a right to reside in a residential property under the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act.
The legislation also explicitly states that victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, or stalking cannot be deemed “criminal and defiant trespassers” to ensure that abusers cannot exploit this legislation to unlawfully evict their victims. It further clarifies that renters who are victims of residential lease fraud cannot be deemed “criminal and defiant trespassers.”
“As someone who represents a district with one of the highest rates of homeownership in the City, I am a strong advocate for protecting the rights of property owners. My bill balances penalties for criminals and protections for victims and rightful dwellers,” Parker said. “Despite false claims by some, my bill is not about being soft on crime – it’s about being smart and not ‘criminalizing’ those who are not criminals.”
The bill was the result of collaboration with Community Legal Services, SeniorLAW Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), organizations which are on the front lines every day, protecting the city’s most vulnerable.
“The Criminal and Defiant Trespasser law enacted by City Council in June attempted to address the issue of criminal trespass into residences, but in doing so, it subjects many non-criminals to potential fines or jail time simply for living in a house they have a right to be in,” said Jennifer Schultz, Senior Staff Attorney with Community Legal Services in the Homeownership Unit. “The City law did not protect previous owners of property who have lost a property via the sheriff’s sale process, victims of domestic violence, and people living in a property with permission from an owner but who never had tenancy relationship. Bill 180741 fixes the flaws in the original law and provides a more balanced approach that honors the various rights people have over a property.”
Additionally, Council unanimously voted in favor of Bill 180978, which prohibits someone from renting a residential property to a third party if they do not own the property, have the legal authority to occupy the property, or are permitted to rent the property to a third party. Violators would be subject to a fine of up to $2,000 or up to 90-days imprisonment, in addition to other applicable fines, penalties, and imprisonment under Pennsylvania law. It would also provide victims with a private right of action, making it easier for victims to seek restitution in court.
“I want to thank the Philadelphia Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the City’s Law Department, along with Community Legal Services, SeniorLAW Center, the Tenant Union Representative Network, and the Public Interest Law Center for working collaboratively with us to address both of these critical issues.” Parker said.
Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker represents the 9th District, which includes East Mt. Airy, West Oak Lane, East Oak Lane, Lawncrest, Burholme, Olney and parts of Oxford Circle and Logan. She is Chair of Council’s Committee on Labor and Civil Service and Vice Chair of Council’s Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.