On Thursday, the Supreme Court sided with a 94-year-old widow in her disagreement with the government of Hennepin County, Minnesota. The county sold her home to pay off a small tax bill and kept the rest.
In 1999, Geralidein Tyler bought a house in Minneapolis. This is where the story starts. A story by Red State says that she moved to a retirement village in 2010 for a number of different reasons.
Tyler got behind on her property taxes because she had to pay a mortgage, condo fees, and rent on her retirement apartment, which cost a lot of money. She owed $2,300 in back taxes in 2015, and the county added interest and fees to bring the total to $15,000.
At a tax sale, the county took Tyler's land title and sold it for $40,000. The county gave Tyler $15,000 to pay off his bill and kept the rest.They thought that since the county had taken her title, she no longer owned the land and had no rights to it. This meant that Tyler had to pay a $50,000 mortgage and $12,000 in rental fees.
It is said that Tyler's position is not unusual. In 12 states, local governments are allowed to sell property at auction to settle tax disputes and get the difference.
Tyler went to court and made two claims. First, she said that it was against the Fifth Amendment for the county to take money from people who owed back taxes and fees.
She also said that the fees and fines for unpaid taxes, which made a $2,300 bill go up to $15,000, broke the Eighth Amendment's rule against "excessive fines."
The district court threw out the case because, under Minnesota law, Tyler had no right to the money and no reason to fight the fines and fees.
She filed a petition for review with the Eighth Circuit, which moved the case along quickly. Next, Tyler spoke to the Supreme Court. Thursday, the jury found in favor of Tyler with a perfect 9-0 vote.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the whole court, started by talking about the county's claim that Tyler didn't have a legal right, called "standing," to bring her takings claim at all.
He didn't agree with the county and said that Tyler did have the right to be there. The county said that Tyler wouldn't be hurt by the sale of her condo because she might have had a $49,000 mortgage on it and a $12,000 lien for unpaid homeowners' association fees.
The judges said that the county's claims were just guesses because neither the mortgage nor the lien had been proven. But, Roberts said, "Tyler still has a good case that she lost money because the County kept $25,000 that was hers." Roberts said that Tyler could have paid some of the condo's bills with that money if she had gotten it.
Roberts asked the judges if the $25,000 left over after Tyler's house was sold to pay off her taxes to the county is "property" for the purposes of the takings clause. This was the main point Tyler made. The county looked at a state rule from 1935 that says if a property owner doesn't pay her property taxes on time, she loses the right to the land. So, the county said that the government had nothing to take.
The court disagreed and said that property rights can't be twisted so easily. Roberts said that even Minnesota agrees that a property owner is entitled to the money that is more than her debt in some cases.
Roberts wrote that Tyler's home could be sold so that the county could get the $15,000 in back taxes she owes. But the county can't use the unpaid taxes as a way to take more land than what was owed. Roberts said that when the county kept the $25,000, it did a "classic taking," which means that the government took "private property for its own use."