MANSFIELD — In an effort to send a stern message to squatters, authorities in Tarrant County arrested a couple as they left an eviction hearing Tuesday morning.
Moments after Justice of the Peace Matt Hayes ordered Andrew and Alicia LaTour to vacate a Mansfield home, deputies handcuffed the couple as they left the courtroom.
The married couple now faces burglary charges — a move that surprised the LaTours’ attorney, Bob Frisch.
"I had no idea," he said. "Apparently it's now a criminal matter."
Officials said it is the first time in Texas someone has not only been evicted, but also arrested for using the legal definition of "adverse possession" to occupy a property.
This is just the latest move in an ongoing sweep officers have dubbed Operation House Cleaning.
Last month, deputies evicted the LaTours from a $220,000 foreclosed home in Mansfield. The couple had sought ownership of the vacant house by filing for adverse possession. The little-known Texas law dates to the 1800s, and lets people claim abandoned properties as their own.
Andrew LaTour and his wife moved into the two-story house in August after paying a $16 fee and filing for adverse possession with the Tarrant County Clerk.
"If the home is abandoned, it's not being taken care of," LaTour, 31, told News 8 in November. "You have a right to go ahead and claim that."
But prosecutors said that home was not abandoned, just vacant. It is owned by a mortgage company, which asked constables to evict the LaTours.
"They removed all the deadbolts. They took the garage door openers," said Tarrant Count Constable Clint Burgess. "These individuals just out of the blue decided to take the home."
Burgess said this is a growing problem in North Texas, especially with the soft economy creating a lot of empty homes.
News 8 first uncovered the issue after discovering as many as 70 cases of adverse possession filed in Tarrant County this year.
Prosecutors said at least 39 rightful homeowners have been victimized by squatters suddenly taking over. Typically, authorities evicted the squatters, but Burgess said he will also arrest them for burglary.
"We will take action," he said.
At least eight squatters have now been arrested in North Texas. "We will hold these people accountable and return these homes back to the homeowner," Burgess pledged.