A lot of the time, Supreme Court decisions hinge on complicated interpretations of legal standards and vaguely-worded legislation. But every once in a while, a case comes along that just ought to be very simple.
One such decision was just handed down in Hennepin County v. Tyler, a case that determined whether or not a Minnesota county had the right to steal from grandmothers. After all, no matter how it was dressed up, that was ultimately the question that the Court’s decision hinged on.
Geraldine Tyler, a 94-year-old grandmother, owned a condominium in Minneapolis. In 2010, concerned about her safety in a city, Tyler moved to an apartment in a senior living center.
However, Tyler found herself unable to keep up with the rent in her new apartment as well as the property taxes on her Minneapolis condo. Within five years, she owed $2,300 in back property taxes. Once penalties and interest were tacked on, her total debt was $15,000.
Hennepin County, where the Minneapolis condo was located, seized the condo to cover this. Even if this seems like a somewhat harsh response to a elderly woman falling $2,300 behind on her tax bills, Tyler is not contesting anything about the county’s actions to this point.
But a year later, Hennepin County sold Tyler’s condo for $40,000. Rather than keeping $15,000 to cover Tyler’s outstanding tax debt and returning the remaining $25,000 to her, Hennepin County simply pocketed the full proceeds from the sale, leaving Tyler without a single penny.
Unfortunately, Geraldine Tyler was not the only Minnesotan to experience this form of theft, as state law allows counties to do this. Between 2014 and 2020, Minnesota counties seized more than 1,200 family homes, with an average of 92 percent of home equity in excess of the outstanding tax debt effectively stolen. In other words, over an average of $17,000 in tax debts, these 1,200 families lost an average of $207,000 in home equity.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court made it clear that this form of state-sponsored grandmother mugging does not pass legal muster. In a unanimous, 9-0 opinion, the Court ruled that the theft of Tyler’s home equity in excess of her unpaid property tax liability was an unconstitutional “taking,” prohibited under the Fifth Amendment.
The Fifth Amendment’s “takings clause” prohibits the “taking” of private property for public use “without just compensation.” The Court ruled that Hennepin County’s decision to pocket the remaining $25,000 in value from the home sale was such a “taking,” as Tyler lost this home equity with no compensation whatsoever.
In ruling as it did, the Court sent an important message that taxpayers who miss tax payments for whatever reason do not give up their rights or subject themselves to whatever punishment the state sees fit. Governments have the right to seize delinquent taxpayers’ property to recoup unpaid taxes, but they do not have the right to turn a tidy profit in the process.
Any Supreme Court decision that further clarifies protections that taxpayers enjoy is a win for taxpayers. But a decision that says that counties can’t steal from grandmothers is a win you probably didn’t know you needed.
Andrew Wilford is a senior policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tax and fiscal policy research and education at all levels of government.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.