Local pastor charged with 8 felonies trying to put a roof over someone's head

11/27/12 Janelle Irwin
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A Tampa Pastor is suing the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for arresting her after she helped a member of her congregation move into a home owned by someone else. Tami Robinson used centuries old land ownership loophole to try to acquire an abandoned home, but it didn’t work. Robinson said she and the woman she was helping were arrested and charged with eight felonies.

“We’ve been charged with burglary, two counts of grand theft, two counts of burglary, two counts of impersonation and fraud. They are stating that we were going around telling the people in the neighborhoods that we owned the properties and I don’t understand why I would need to tell somebody that I owned the property when I filed adverse possession on the property and we’ve also been charged with organized crime.”

Even before the arrest, Robinson filed a lawsuit because Sheriff’s deputies were harassing her and the tenant. But Robinson who is the Pastor of Well Pavilion Empowerment Center in Ybor Heights thought she was doing something completely legal. She called the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s office to get details on what’s called Adverse Possession.

“You know, to find out is this something that can be done? They gave me the information about filing the DR 452 form for adverse possession and they were advising that the property taxes would have to be paid every year and the property would have to be maintained and cultivated and any repairs or anything would have to be – and all leans would have to be paid … so I gathered all the information, thought we were free and clear.”

Robinson started the seven year process of acquiring two abandoned homes in Riverview with the intention of letting church members in crisis stay there until they could find more permanent housing arrangements. She didn’t plan to charge rent. Robinson moved the tenant into the first home two weeks before deputies found out from a real estate agent that someone was staying in the home. After being told to leave the property, Robinson helped the woman move to a second home where both women were arrested. She said the arresting deputy told her what she was doing was both illegal and unconstitutional.

“so, I’m like, ‘well, I haven’t found any information like that to where adverse possession is illegal and unconstitutional, is there something you can show me showing me this because here we are – I’m thinking that this is something that we’re going to be able to use but now you’re telling me that it’s illegal and unconstitutional.’ I’ve never seen anything on this. And I think that’s when he really got upset because I’m telling him, ‘you need to show me the law on this.’”

Robinson may not have much of a case against the Sheriff’s office. Will Shepherd is general counsel for the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s office. He said filing Adverse Possession does not protect someone from being prosecuted for criminal violations on a property.

“If you trespass on somebody else’s property for a long enough period of time and they don’t complain about it, you might be able to go to court in seven years, file a quiet title action and get ownership of that property.”

Shepherd said just because someone files paperwork with a governmental group it doesn’t mean they are protected from prosecution.

“It’s almost like saying – let’s say there’s a statute of limitation on burglary – it’s almost like saying, filing a form with the government saying ‘I burglarized a house at 123 Main Street five nights ago and so I’m counting down the time and if nobody comes to arrest me or charge me with burglary in the next … five years, than I’m off the hook.’ That’s sort of the irony of the adverse possession return is that you’re basically writing and acknowledging to the government that you are trespassing on someone else’s property.”

Shepherd said he isn’t clear on all of the specifics concerning Adverse Possession because they vary case by case, but in most cases the homeowner would have to file a complaint for anything to be done about someone living in an abandoned home – even if the property is in foreclosure.

“Yes, the owner is absolutely still the owner. Until the bank takes title in the foreclosure action – until there is a transfer of title to the bank, until they foreclose on that mortgage – that property is still owned by the owner subject to that mortgage.”

Tami Robinson is still waiting for a court date to be set and hasn’t hired a lawyer yet. But she plans on fighting her charges and pursuing the lawsuit. She still wants to find a way to open a half way house for abused women or people just getting out of prison as a temporary housing option. But for now she just wants her legal troubles to go away.

“It’s a thing where, when I found out it was too late – that people have already been put in jail for this, that charges had already been filed, people had already been harassed for filing for adverse possession. The majority of them are people of color. You know, it’s just been horrible how people have been treated.”

Robinson considers the arrest racial harassment. She said if she had been putting church-goers in vacant homes in the low income Ybor Heights neighborhood where her church is located, no one would have bothered her about it.

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