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How Do Squatter’s Rights Work?

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Jason asks, “Most of us have heard the term 'squatter’s rights,' but what rights to squatters actually have?”

In the United States, “squatter’s rights” isn’t a list of specific rights, but refers to a specific form of adverse possession, a legal principle that we inherited from England and has been around, in one form or another, for ages.

Adverse possession allows for real estate to change ownership without payment if someone occupies another person’s property while meeting certain requirements for a set amount of time without the owner getting rid of them. For example, if I build a fence way over my neighbor’s property line and use and maintain the land I’ve fenced off, and my neighbor does nothing about it for a while (exactly how long depends on where we live), I may be able to claim that chunk of his property as my own if he does ever make a fuss. 

The idea behind adverse possession, the California Court of Appeals for the Third District wrote in a 1979 decision, “is basically that land use has historically been favored over disuse, and that therefore he who uses the land is preferred in the law to he who does not, even thought the latter is the rightful owner. Hence our laws of property have sanctioned certain types of otherwise unlawful taking of land belonging to someone else.” The purpose, the Court continues, isn’t “to reward the taker or punish the person dispossessed, but to reduce litigation and preserve the peace by protecting a possession that has been maintained for a statutorily deemed sufficient period of time.”

While the principle is usually used by the courts to resolve property disputes like my hypothetical fence, squatters can also use adverse possession to gain ownership of the property they’re squatting in if they play their cards right. 

Land Grab

Adverse possession statutes vary from state to state, and sometimes within states, but generally speaking, to acquire property by adverse possession a squatter needs to possess the disputed property in a way that is actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile and continuous for the statutory period of time. That is, they need to actually occupy and use the property, in opposition of the actual owner’s rights and claims, in an open and visible way that makes it known to the owner that their property is being possessed and prevents others from using or occupying it. All of this has to be done for a set period of time, which varies between jurisdictions. In California, a squatter needs to possess a property for five years, while in New Jersey, they’d have to hang on to it for 30 years.

If the squatter’s possession is interrupted during that period—say, by the actual owner attempting to take possession or the squatter abandoning the property—the continuity of it is broken, and the squatter has to start again with the clock reset at zero. If they manage to meet all those requirements for the full amount of time and not get kicked out, they could claim ownership through adverse possession if any questions about the ownership arise or go before a court. 

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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