In North Carolina, a proposed law could help families protect land ownership

The Reels brothers were held in contempt of court in a dispute over family land.

October 27, 2023, 5:01 AM

A large portion of land in North Carolina and other states in the South has been passed down informally, making that bond open to legal problems of proper ownership when an heir can sell portions of the property unbeknownst to other family members.

This issue is often more recurrent in low income and minority families. But a new bill in the state could change that.

The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, currently being considered in the North Carolina Legislature, could help families fight legal discrepancies for property ownership rather than forcing them to sell at auctions with smaller property value.

Melvin Davis, 83, said he never intended for him or his brother, LiCurtis Reels, to end up in jail over their family's land, but told ABC News it was something he knew he "had to do."

The brothers are third-generation descendants of Elijah Reels, their great-grandfather who bought nearly 65 acres of land on the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina, in Carteret County in 1911. The land was then passed on to Mitchell Reels, their grandfather, who died without a will, the land later becoming the heirs' property.

"Land and abundance are what we consider the American dream," Kim Duhon, Davis and LiCurtis Reels' niece, told ABC News ahead of the recent premiere of an Amazon Prime Video documentary, "Silver Dollar Road," which tells the story of the Reels family and their nearly 40-year battle with developers and investors over land they say is rightfully theirs.

Members of the Reels family are shown in this image from the documentary "Silver Dollar Road."
Amazon Studios

In North Carolina, if a person dies without a legal will, or without conveying their property to a beneficiary, all of their heirs will own an equal percentage of the property becoming co-tenants, says Jane Sternecky, the Uniform Law Commission legislative counsel responsible for enactment of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, told ABC News. If a co-tenant or a third party files a partition of action in the court, a court could potentially determine how property is partitioned, making more families vulnerable to this issue, she said.

The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act

The bipartisan-supported North Carolina bill was filed in April by state Sens. Benton Sawrey and Paul Lowe, the primary sponsors along with 13 other state senators. The North Carolina Legislature is currently considering the bill, with the state Senate last referring it to committee in April and the state House doing the same in May.

"We didn't see most Americans having the legal right to own land until after slavery ended, and within the Black community, we acquired a lot of real estate within the years following slavery," Mavis Gragg, an attorney and conservationist specializing in generational real estate retention and stewardship, told ABC News.

For the Reels family, the property, which has been in the family for more than 100 years, had been passed on through generations

"We're the only Back family in a coastal water," Davis told ABC News. "I work off that water."

As much as 4% of all property in North Carolina -- valued at approximately $2 billion -- is held as heirs' property, leaving thousands of predominantly minority and low-income families at risk of losing their ancestral land and homes, according to Wake Forest Law's Heirs Property Project.

The Heirs' Property Project, launched in January, assists organizations to provide legal representation for heirs' property owners.

An estimate of Heirs property in North Carolina developed in partnership with Winston Salem State University's Spatial Justice Lab and the North Carolina Uniform Partition of Heirs' Property Act Coalition.
USDA Forest Service Research

The Reels family said a distant uncle, who was living in New Jersey at the time, claimed 13.25 of the 65 acres of land and sold it to developers in 1970. That portion of waterfront property is considered the most valuable, and is where Davis and LiCurtis Reels lived.

"Oftentimes, a developer will sort of work to get inside the family and use a court to force the sale of the land. The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act does a lot to curtail that. It would really change the game in terms of protecting people's land in the state," Jesse Williams, law fellow at the Wake Forest Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, told ABC News.

According to a Boston College Law School legal studies research paper published in 2022, there was a nearly 90% decline in Black agricultural land ownership from 1910 to 1997. The paper estimates that the "compounded value of the Black land loss from 1920 to 1997 is roughly $326 billion."

"Our legal system has always been a very inhumane base for us in many respects, including real estate ownership," Gragg said. "Presently, what we see in terms of loss within the Black community has to do with the form of ownership or inherited real estate and the bundle of rights, the legal bundle of rights that come with that form of ownership. What we're seeing is predatory behavior using the law and focusing on particularly vulnerable communities."

"This has been a nightmare"

During a hearing in 2011, a judge ruled that the brothers, who lived on the acres their distant uncle sold a portion of the property, were to be held in civil contempt for refusing to vacate the land, according to court documents. They were held in contempt in the Carteret County Jail for nearly eight years and were released in 2019.

At the time, Davis and LiCurtis Reels were held under civil contempt in the custody of the Carteret County Detention Center until they agreed to "tear down their personal structures, vacate the property, and agree not to return to the land," according to court documents obtained by ABC News.

"I never signed no papers," Davis added.

The brothers were never convicted of a crime and are "two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history," according to ProPublica reporting from 2019.

"This has been a nightmare. I didn't intend for it to get like this," Davis told ABC News. "We fought as hard as we could, and I didn't see any other way but to go to jail for this. And I sat there for eight years until they turned me loose."

Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis are shown in this photo from the documentary "Silver Dollar Road."
Amazon Studios

North Carolina Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck told ABC News his job is to enforce the order of the court. "I'm not an advocate for one side or the other; it's my job to carry out the order of the court," Buck said.

After several attempted appeals, the brothers were released in 2019 with the help of a local attorney.

Scott Schang, professor of practice at Wake Forest Law's Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, says they're not the only ones who've faced imprisonment over land.

"It's not uncommon, we have other clients who have faced jail time or been threatened with criminal fraud charges because they were trying to protect their land," Schang told ABC News.

North Carolina legislation

Attorneys and lawmakers are working to change that with the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which could protect families from the legal loopholes of losing their property.

“This is an act that specifically gives people additional due process rights in the event that a parcel of heirs' property is partitioned either by a member of the family or someone who acquires an extra share of that property, and attempts to partition," Sternecky said.

"It would really change the game in terms of protecting people's land in the state," Schang said.

According to legislators, the bill won't be introduced until the state Senate begins its long session next year, but there's a chance the act could pass in some form in 2024.

"One of the biggest things is that unlike virtually every state in the Southeast, including all of its neighboring states, North Carolina has yet to pass the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA)," Williams told ABC News. "It's passed bipartisanly all over the country, and it does a lot to protect heirs property owners, to protect Black family land, to protect land owned by low-income folks across North Carolina."

"It puts in place some checks and balances in the system to make sure that families can essentially have a fair day in court as it relates to the sale of their property," Brian Turner, policy director of the Audubon Society of North Carolina, a nonprofit environmental organization, told ABC News. Turner served four terms in the North Carolina state House representing Buncombe County.

"We're not trying to ban partition sales. We're trying to ban predatory sells," he said.

"It's a blessing to have that land"

The Reels family says they're working with attorneys to help them secure their land for future heirs.

"For Black people, if you have any land, and you can live on that land, and you can attain a nice home, and have a decent job, that is a big goal, you know that that is a major goal," Mamie Reels, Davis and LiCurtis Reels' sister, said. "So having that land is a blessing, because you can't make land."

"We were called defiant. We were called ignorant. We were considered uneducated people... and where we came from, this land was valued more than what we were worth, so we didn't deserve to live on that land, and we didn't deserve to have it, because we were never going to do anything with it," Mamie Reels said.

She added, "We didn't want condos, we didn't want fancy houses. We live good, but we knew that all of this could bring even more financial burden to us because we couldn't afford the taxes. So, we weren't worried about condos and big subdivisions, because we enjoyed it. That's our little country club."

"It says a lot about tenacity and our strength to hold on. We stuck together, and it brought us closer. It cemented our family values," Duhon told ABC News. "Our battle could be theirs [other families]. It doesn't matter what color you are; it doesn't matter how much money you have -- fight for what is yours."