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EDITORIAL: Federal court sanctions government theft

If you fall far enough behind on your property taxes, the government can seize your house to satisfy your debt. Should it also be entitled to pocket all of your home’s equity?

Consider the case of 93-year-old Geraldine Tyler. In 2010, Ms. Tyler left her Minnesota condominium for an apartment in a safer neighborhood. But she could no longer afford the property taxes she owed on the condo, according to reason.com. Eventually, Ms. Tyler racked up $2,311 in tax debt to Hennepin County, which would balloon to $15,000 with fees, interest and costs. The county then took ownership of the condo and sold it for $40,000.

But instead of simply keeping enough to satisfy Ms. Tyler’s tax bill and giving her the difference, county officials kept all the profits from the sale. Ms. Tyler sued, arguing that she was the victim of a “taking,” but a federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of the government.

The Fifth Amendment holds that the government must compensate citizens when it takes their private property for public use. And yet a dozen states allow local governments to benefit in the manner Hennepin County did with the elderly Ms. Tyler, Reason’s Billy Binion reports.

In one case outlined by Mr. Binion, a 76-year-old man was kicked out of his Washington, D.C., home over a whopping $134 in unpaid property taxes. The proceeds from the sale of his seized home, which was valued at $197,000, were taken by the government. The man, who was suffering from dementia, had reportedly spent several months living outside on the front porch, sleeping on a lawn chair and thinking he had locked himself out of his home.

“I see this all the time. Most people don’t know, they don’t understand what’s going on,” Christina Martin, an attorney representing Ms. Tyler with Pacific Legal Foundation, told Reason. “And no matter what, the government should not be able to take everything from you just because you owe them money.”

The foundation has vowed to appeal Ms. Tyler’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. But the wheels of justice move slowly. Ms. Tyler isn’t dealing with any medical issues, but as she asked Ms. Martin, “How long is this going to take? I haven’t got forever.”

Let’s hope the appeal is successful. What Hennepin County did is outright theft. The fact that it was sanctioned by a federal court is a dangerous affront to both property rights and the Fifth Amendment. As foundation attorneys correctly argue, the government shouldn’t be allowed to take a mile when an inch will satisfy its tax lien.

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