If you are a homeowner in Philadelphia, you expect your government to protect your home. That's why Bill No. 180741, currently in City Council, is so perplexing.
Imagine your home is broken into by criminals while you're away. They change your locks, use your personal property, run up the utility bills, and refuse to leave unless you pay them thousands of dollars.
Naturally, you call the police. Now imagine that the occupants tell the police that they saw a rental ad for your home on the internet and paid cash to someone but can't prove any of this, or they show the police a piece of mail addressed to themselves at your home. The police then tell you they cannot arrest the occupants and you must file in court to remove them. It typically takes many months, and sometimes more than a year, before you are back in your home.
Shockingly, this crime has victimized many homeowners, as well as renters, across Philadelphia. That's why I introduced the Criminal and Defiant Trespassers Law, which was adopted by an 11-6 vote in June and became law in September 2018.
Under this new law and corresponding police directive, faced with the same scenario as before, you call the police. If the police do not arrest the criminals, you can now initiate a civil process by filing an affidavit, which requires a police detective to investigate the case within five days. If the investigation determines that the occupants have committed a crime, they will be arrested; if not, you can file for an accelerated court date.
There are two crucial elements of this new law. First, it removes the long wait to get before a judge. The courts handle these cases fairly and hear evidence from both sides.
Second, it deters criminal and defiant trespass. Judges may issue a civil penalty of up to $300 and 90 days' imprisonment per day of violation. Though there is a limit to the amount someone can be imprisoned and fined under a civil offense, these penalties send a strong message that this crime is not worth the risk. In order to prevent abuse of this law, these same penalties also apply to any unscrupulous landlord or other person who would misuse this law.
These protections in the law make complete sense. Yet the bill before Council would change this law to create loopholes that criminals can use to avoid speedy removal from a home. If the criminal and defiant trespasser in your home alleges that they were a victim of domestic violence, sexual harassment, or stalking either by you, someone who used to live in your home, or a fellow criminal and defiant trespasser, you are precluded from using the law to obtain a quick court date. In addition, if a judge determines that the occupant is the victim of a scam, that occupant is allowed to stay in your home for 15 days — even if that person can reasonably leave your home the next day.
The bill strikes at the two most crucial elements of the law. By codifying loopholes in the definition of criminal and defiant trespasser, it prevents many cases from ever reaching a courtroom. In attempting to cast violators as victims, the bill makes victims of homeowners. It transforms a law designed to protect homeowners into a weapon against them. The bill does nothing to help those claiming to be victims, other than to improperly let them remain in your home at your expense.
This bill also dilutes the penalties levied against those who violate the law. It eliminates the possibility of jail time and caps fines at $1,000 for the first violation and $2,000 for subsequent violations. If criminals knew there was a possibility of living for free in someone else's home for several months or even over a year, with a maximum penalty of $1,000, why not break in, allege to be a victim of a scam or stalking, and meanwhile offer to leave if the owner pays $5,000?
Despite being well-intentioned, this bill would undo the new protections for homeowners and allow criminal and defiant trespassers to continue to victimize homeowners. Tell your City Council representatives to oppose Bill No. 180741.
David Oh is a Philadelphia City Councilman At-Large.