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94-year-old Minneapolis woman's property case makes it to the Supreme Court

The lower courts sided against Geraldine Tyler. Legal experts think the Supreme Court might overturn the previous rulings.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — A 94-year-old Minneapolis woman's court case against Hennepin County has made its way to the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments for why Geraldine Tyler believes her constitutional rights were violated by the county.

In 2015, Tyler's North Minneapolis condo was forfeited to Hennepin County after she did not pay property taxes for five years. Tyler owed $2,300 in unpaid taxes. With interests and penalties, that number totaled up to $15,000. 

Hennepin County sold her property a year later for $40,000. Under Minnesota law, the county can legally keep the extra $25,000 from the sale. 

"Is the government, when they take your property for back taxes, entitled to all the value and equity of your property or are they only entitled to the amount of back taxes owed?" Hamline political science professor, David Schultz pondered.

The Associated Press says the justices seemed in broad agreement with arguments by the lawyer for Tyler that Hennepin County violated the Constitution's prohibition on the taking of private property without "just compensation."

Dorsey & Whitney partner Steven Wells says the questions the Court asked were compelling. 

"Conservative and both liberal justices were obviously concerned they (the county) could take a property of immense value, like $1 million, when the taxes were only let's say, $5 dollars," Wells said.

Hennepin County's attorney reminded the justices of a Supreme Court ruling in 1956 when they upheld New York City's decision to keep the $7,000 it received for selling a property it seized over a $65 water bill.

"The justices were debating does that seem right? Does that seem fair? Does that seem constitutional? I think both sides were concerned about that," Wells said.

Wells also pointed out that the Justices expressed worry over unintended consequences, like an impact on eminent domain or abandonment.

Christina Martin, representing Tyler, made a point of fairness drawing from the Magna Carta in 1215 spelled out "that the government could not take more than it was owed."

Minnesota is among roughly a dozen states and the District of Columbia that allow local jurisdictions to keep the excess money, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation, a not-for-profit public interest law firm focused on property rights that represented Tyler at the Supreme Court. 

At least 8,950 homes were sold because of unpaid taxes and the former owners received little or nothing in those states between 2014 and 2021, according to Pacific Legal. 

Other states allowing the sale of properties like Tyler's are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and South Dakota, the group said.

There has been no explanation about why Tyler stopped paying her property taxes when she moved from the condo, where she had lived since 1999. She moved for "health and safety" reasons, Pacific Legal said.

The county said in court papers that Tyler could have sold the property and kept whatever was left after paying off the mortgage and taxes, refinanced her mortgage to pay the tax bill or signed up for a tax payment plan. 

Instead, she did nothing for five years, the county said, until after authorities followed state law and sold the condo. The county wrote: Tyler believes "the Constitution required the State to serve as her real estate agent, sell the property on her behalf, and write a check for the difference between the tax debt and the fair market value."

Lower courts sided with the county before the justices agreed to step in. 

Minnesota and a handful of states and government associations are backing the county, warning that a Supreme Court ruling could tie the hands of local governments that rely on property taxes.

But the bulk of support in court filings is with Tyler, including AARP, business groups, real estate interests and other people who have gone through experiences similar to hers. Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer also wrote a brief on her behalf. 

A Massachusetts man described his ongoing fight with authorities over a tax bill of $900 on a property he says is worth at least $330,000 in a beach town on Cape Cod Bay. In a filing from New York, property tax attorney David Wilkes and legal services groups wrote that New York's rules "excessively take far more than what is due to the government and go well beyond an appropriate deterrent to those homeowners who would ignore a tax delinquency."

The Biden administration told the court that Tyler's claim that her property was taken without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment, is the stronger of her arguments. 

Tyler also is raising a claim that Minnesota's law violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines. But if the court rules in her favor based on the Fifth Amendment, it wouldn't have to decide the other issue.

Not until 2019 did the Supreme Court rule that the "excessive fines" clause applied to the states as well as the federal government.

A decision in Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota, 22-166, is expected by late June.

Steven Wells, who KARE interviewed for this story, has represented KARE 11 in prior cases unrelated to today's Supreme Court hearing.

AP - 2023-04-26T19:47:46.651Z

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