If someone believes that they are the rightful owner of your property, how long should they be able to wait before making the claim? Consider this news item, which appeared in the June 12 issue of Newsday, a Long Island, New York newspaper:
Shinnecock tribal leaders, still empty-handed in their quests for federal recognition and a casino on the South Fork, now say they will sue to take back 3,600 acres of their ancestral land in Southampton, even if it means evicting many of the owners of Long Island’s premier pieces of real estate.
The tribe is working with influential Republican strategists on what many experts say is a long-shot attempt to reclaim land that includes the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, National Golf Links and Long Island University’s Southampton College. The suit will seek billions in monetary damages. Individual homeowners would be allowed to stay, and the state would be asked to compensate the tribe for their land, a tribe spokesman said.
The tribe’s attorney, John Peebles, of Sacramento, Calif., said the tribe will file the land claim — which he said is monetarily the largest ever by an Indian tribe — in U.S. District Court in Central Islip early this week. He did not provide a copy of the suit. Peebles said a second suit may follow within a month that will attempt to claim nearly the entire Town of Southampton.
“We seek justice. We seek reparations. We seek to recover our lost lands,” said Randy King, chairman of the tribe’s board of trustees. He added, “Any logical person would say, ‘What took you so long to do this?'”
Strangely enough, either Mr. King did not answer his own question, or if he did, the reporter didn’t find the answer worthy of inclusion in the news item. From the vantage point of this observer, however, the answer to that question is of great interest, for this simple reason: unless there is a compelling reason why the Shinnecocks’ claims were not asserted for decades, they should not be able to disturb any owner, let alone thousands of owners, who presumably purchased the property in question for fair value and have possessed it for decades under the belief that it is theirs.
While the above news item and others talk at length about esoteric principles of federal law, none of them mention some simple principles, known to all lawyers, that must have some bearing on the situation, at least as far as the current owners of the property in question are concerned. I have told you before about the concept of adverse possession. The basic concept of adverse possession is that if I occupy and use land for a long period of time, believing that I have the right to do so and without the permission of the true owner, the true owner will lose the right to reassert ownership of the land and will not be able to legally eject me from possession. Another, related legal concept is the period of limitation or repose. You may have heard of this concept in the form of the statute of limitations. All this means is that if you know you have a claim against someone, there is a limit to how long you can wait before suing them.
There is one aspect of adverse possession that would work against the owners of the land now claimed by the Shinnecocks. You cannot, for reasons that should be fairly obvious, claim adverse possession of land owned by the government. If the Shinnecocks have the status of a government, which Indian tribes do in at least some respects, then the owners of the disputed land might not be able to claim adverse possession. It appears from the news accounts, however, that the status of the Shinnecocks as a recognized tribe is a major issue in the whole dispute.
So now I ask you, leaving aside for the moment all the esoteric arguments about the Shinnecocks’ claims against the state and federal governments for compensation for the loss of the land in question, how could any discussion of any claims the Shinnecocks may have against the individual landowners concerning possession of the land not include adverse possession and statute of limitations? The Shinnecocks are talking about dispossessing the owners of land that has been in private ownership for over a hundred years. I don’t mean to discount the justice of the Shinnecocks’ claims for compensation from the state and federal governments, but certainly they didn’t just recently conclude that the property was wrongfully taken from them. If these were claims by one private landowner against another, the failure of the dispossessed landowner to assert any claims against the landowner in possession for such a long period of time would unquestionably result in the dispossessed landowner losing those claims.
This is exactly the type of situation that the statute of limitations and adverse possession were meant to address. In order to have a reliable system of private property ownership, one in which people can invest in ownership and improvement of land without fear of losing their investment, private property owners must at some point have solid assurances that any old ownership disputes that may exist cannot be asserted against them. Adverse possession and the statute of limitations are meant to provide just such assurances.