Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Law as Less of an Ass

Everyone knows anecdotes about the law not working. Hot coffee is perhaps the most common example people like to cite. Still, sometimes the law does work. At least if we use it.

For instance, the Sun-Times reported that for years the City of Chicago had taken the position that it did not want to go to trial where Chicago police officers were accused of brutality. This meant that millions were paid out based on allegations, and internal investigations. In 2008 about $9 million was paid out for "small cases," defined as settlement amounts below $100,000. The same amount was paid out in 2007 for such cases. At the end of 2008 the city decided that it was going to start litigating cases (and said so publicly). In 2009 allegations of brutality fell 50% and the city expects to pay out $1.7 million for small cases. Since I am guessing that people making allegations of brutality did not read the papers when the city made this change, it makes me think that the lawyers who make 30% of every $100,000 "small" case suddenly found those cases uneconomical. Glad the city finally wised up to the nature of these "small" cases. If the only reason to report "brutality" is to get a free $100,000, maybe that wasn't brutality.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported on people using adverse possession to resolve the housing crisis in Florida. The person they focused on found houses that had been labeled public nuisances. He entered, took possession, sent letters to the owners and banks saying he was taking the house, and renovated them. In some cases he leased them to people asking that they renovate in lieu of rent payments. He included an addendum in the leases stating that he did not own the houses. While this approach has been criticized as mere trespassing, the fact is that it would have been easy to prevent this at a property you owned. You respond to the letter. You show up before anyone moves in and assert your ownership. All you have to do is assert your ownership and the strategy doesn't work. But the "owners" didn't. They didn't pay the taxes, and they didn't respond to the letters. In that case, as messy as it will be clearing title and everything else, the taxes will be paid for seven years, houses will not stand empty, and at least some responsible people will get houses. I am not sure that the law should intervene until and unless an "owner" asserted their right.

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