Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gunshots replace the Welcome Wagon in mistaken trespass shooting.

On January 25, 2014, Rodney Black shot two persons he supposed were trespassing on his land. They were not. One of the victims had purchased the adjoining lot and was simply showing the other victim, his brother, where a new home was to be built.

This story came to my attention within the context of a discussion about our "gun culture."  But it resonates with me for different reasons.

This story marks the extreme of behavior we witness in our real estate litigation practice. There are few things Americans will defend harder than their boundaries.  And quite often, most fights about boundaries are predicated on bad information or a misunderstanding about those boundaries.

Here are just a few examples taken from our actual case files:
  • In a dispute over a shared dirt road, a man removed his brother's pick-up truck with a front end loader---as police watched.
  • In a dispute over boundaries under a duck hunting license, shots were fired over our clients heads to convince them to move. Surprisingly, their first call was not to the police, but to their property lawyer.
  • In a dispute over use of a shared access driveway, a client's neighbor felled a large tree to block access. Their first call was not to police, but to their property lawyer.
  • In a dispute over shared use of a Baltimore City alley, the owner of the last row house built a fence across the entire alley to deny access to over 20 neighbors. This actually happened in the middle of a lawsuit, resulting in a good scolding by the judge.
  • In a dispute over ownership of a covered walkway between two Baltimore City row homes, a woman repeatedly cut her neighbor's Comcast cable until the police intervened.
  • In a dispute over ownership of a garage, the neighbor housed a vicious pit bull in the garage, daring others to enter. We kept the door closed until the final court order.
  • In a dispute over the border between two lots, the new neighbor cut over 100 mature trees and removed half his neighbors circular driveway while they were away on vacation. The kicker was that the property is listed as a Historical Landmark. 
And so my thoughts turn again to Mr. Black, who shot his new neighbors while they inspected their newly purchased land. It is a fact that there was no trespass--Mr. Black was mistaken. It is also a fact that Mr. Black elected to use his gun rather than exercise a casual "excuse me, but..." My God, if he had called his lawyer, even, two deaths would have been avoided.

Property rights in this country are exclusionary in nature.  The "land of opportunity" is, at it's constitutional core, a place where we are encouraged to acquire and hoard limited real property rights--and to then exclude others or limit their access, except for profit. The ancillary concept is that our courts work hard to keep peace among competing claims to land and it's profits. When asked, I often describe our litigation practice as a means to "keep folks from shooting each other." And so this tale of neighbor-shoots-neighbors makes me very sad.

If only Mr. Black had called us.

If only his victims had called us. 

Greet your neighbors.  No need to be best buddies, sharing a frosty over the grilled chicken, but do get to know them, even at the most cursory level. The most fleeting of personal interaction ("hey, man, what's up?") may breed enough familiarity to avoid gun play at the first dispute. And when the new folks move to the neighborhood, a quick handshake and brief conversation may breed a friendship-- or at least an uneasy but enduring truce.  

As a child, I recall reference to the "Welcome Wagon," and I am surprised to find that this organization still exists. Perhaps a property lawyer should be part of the Welcome Wagon team. And with origins in the Old West, it may even be best that the modern Welcome Wagon team should include an armed cowboy. After all, your new neighbor may be packing heat.

More importantly, if there is a dispute involving your land, call your lawyer before you load up a pistol or hunting rifle. You can't enjoy your constitutionally protected right to exclude others from your land while sitting in a jail cell, or while lying in the morgue.