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Thursday, Mar 30, 2017
Crime & Courts

Women sue after arrests for taking over Riverview home

TAMPA - Tami Robinson says she was doing God's work when she helped a family move in to two vacant homes in Riverview using the state's adverse possession law. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says they were committing crimes, specifically: two counts each of invasion by false impersonation, organized fraud, burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and grand theft. Now Robinson and Samantha Gavin-Magras are suing the sheriff, claiming discrimination based on race, gender and social status. The women are black. Gavin-Magras' daughter, Shakoya, also is a plaintiff, although she has not been charged. The adverse possession law allows an individual to take possession of abandoned property if he or she lives there and pays taxes on it for seven years. Since the housing collapse, some people have tried to use the concept to take possession of vacant or foreclosed homes they don't own.
"Anyone can go down and file a lawsuit," said Larry McKinnon, spokesman for the sheriff's office, "but we're prepared to deal with it and we're going to continue protecting the rights of people who own homes and expect to come back and find them the way they left them." McKinnon said race "had absolutely nothing to do with" the Oct. 7 arrests. "We went by the facts of the case and the fact that the victim made a complaint. And we charged what was appropriate." According to the lawsuit, the women "submit that they are doing the same work as Jesus did in clearing the money changers from God's first house, namely the Temple of King David in Jerusalem, when they beneficially occupy and wholesomely use abandoned property as a dwelling place for themselves and their family." The complaint poses a lengthy question: "In a housing crisis where millions of Americans have lost their homes, should the courts construe the law to favor the power of the credit originating, extending and servicing banks to accumulate vast inventories of unused housing … or should the courts fashion remedies for the population at large to take care of themselves and thereby avoid the risks of homelessness and the attendant social costs of welfare and prison for victimless crimes?" According to the sheriff's office, one of the houses the women took possession of belongs to a member of the U.S. Air Force currently on active duty. An owner of the other house, Gines Flaque, laughed when told about the lawsuit. "Wow!" Flaque said. "That's unbelievable. I don't understand how you're discriminated against when you physically break in to a house and claim you live there and file bogus documents saying you're the owner of the house." But Robinson is not laughing. "Both of these homes were foreclosed homes," said Robinson, pastor at Tampa's Well Pavilion Empowerment Center. "Both of these homes had been sitting for over three years. They were grown up. Nobody was attending to them. They were vacant and there were abandoned stickers on the homes. The doors were opened. These properties were not being taken care of." Flaque said the house at 11404 Laurel Brook Court is in his wife's name but hasn't been lived in since November 2009. The couple were in the process of marketing it for a short sale when a real estate agent went to the house and found people there. "We were shocked that somebody was actually claiming they owned the house," Flaque said. "I immediately called the sheriff's office and the sheriff met me over there to find out what was going on." Robinson, who said she is also a mortgage underwriter, claimed sheriff's deputies harassed the homeowners into pressing charges. "These people left these homes," she said. "They had abandoned these homes." The women who brought the suit are representing themselves and have no lawyer. A man described as their spokesman, who said he holds a law degree, thinks the real culprits are financial institutions that are keeping a huge inventory of foreclosed homes off the market to artificially inflate prices. "The banks have engaged themselves in massive criminal activities," said the spokesman, Charles Lincoln, "but of course, they give large sums of money to political officials, which of course, includes sheriffs and circuit judges." Robinson questioned why, if the process she followed is illegal, she was able to file adverse-possession paperwork at the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. She said the occupants were in the process of fixing the homes and planned to pay property taxes. Lincoln said it was "ugly" and "bogus" to charge the women with committing crimes and publish their booking photos on the Internet, which he said can "do a huge amount of damage. "It's not that there is any reality to this, but the fact that she is black in a mug shot, it's doubly damning in the white reality of modern society," he said. "And they know it; that's why they do it. They know they can completely mess up a person's life." Robinson said she hopes the lawsuit will help clarify the law so she and others will know what they can do. McKinnon, the sheriff's spokesman, said any people who take a house that doesn't belong to them are interpreting the law incorrectly.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7837

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