OAKLAND – Four housing rights activists who were involved in taking over an elderly woman’s Oakland home are asking a judge to dismiss the charges against them, which include felony conspiracy, felony filing false documents and misdemeanor trespassing.
Attorney Tony Serra, who represents one of the activists, said today that “everything they did was legal” because they employed an established method called “adverse possession” in which people take over houses that are abandoned and whose property taxes are delinquent.
The house at issue is located at 756 Barbara Road, near Interstate Highway 580, and is owned by 72-year-old Hazel Webb. Last October it was taken over by activists affiliated with Land Action, an Oakland group that was founded in 2011.
Serra said disputes over such properties usually are handled in civil courts, rarely end with arrests and have never before resulted in felony charges.
Serra said, “We will pursue a defense vigorously and I feel strongly that the prosecution will never get a conviction in this case.”
However, Alameda County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said, “We believe the charges to be appropriate based upon the evidence.”
A hearing on the defense’s motion to dismiss the charges was scheduled to be held today but was postponed until April 15.
Alameda County District Attorney investigator Jeff Israel wrote in a probable cause statement that Webb bought the Barbara Road home in 1970 but it’s no longer her primary residence and she was behind in paying her property taxes.
But Israel said Webb “has not sold the home because of its sentimental value,” stays there occasionally when she comes to Oakland, pays a gardener to maintain the exterior monthly and has prominently posted a “no trespassing” sign.
In mid-December, Webb’s gardener phoned her to report that someone was inside her home so she called Oakland police and her relatives to get the intruder, Patrick Mengchih Xu, to leave, according to Israel.
Back on Oct. 21, Israel wrote, Land Action founder Steven DeCaprio had filed an affidavit with the Alameda County Assessor’s Office indicating that Land Action intended to adversely possess the property and asking that tax bills be mailed to the group.
Israel alleged that DeCaprio “trains people to move into targeted properties, change the locks, get utilities turned on in their names and register with the Assessor’s office to begin paying taxes.”
Serra, who represents DeCaprio, said Land Action “wants to give people who are homeless a place to live” and he believes the group should be applauded instead of penalized for its actions.
Serra said Xu and Aisha Munira Alves-Hyde, who also was living at the home, were cooperating with police and were in the midst of packing up their belongings and moving out in January when they were arrested.
“They felt like they had been cheated and lied to,” he said.
But Israel said Xu and Alves-Hyde had known by mid-December that Webb wanted them out but in mid-January they filed a quitclaim deed to transfer interest in the property and continued to live at her house.
Charges were filed against Xu, Alves-Hyde, DeCaprio and Land Action chief executive Kelly Kristine Jewett.
Serra said the four activists, who are known as “The Land Action 4,” are free on bail. He said they could face up to 8 years in prison and $89,000 in fines if they’re convicted of the most serious charges against them.
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