NTUF’s Taxpayer Defense Center, along with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, filed an amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief to argue that the Supreme Court should hold that a government tax sale that confiscates the entire value of someone’s house is an “excessive fine” in violation of the Constitution.
Forced tax sales are an all-too-common occurrence and are always the result of sad factors leading to someone losing their home because they didn’t pay all their property taxes. But some states, like Minnesota, go a step further: keeping all the money from the sale, even if it is far more than the back taxes due. Such is the case of Ms. Geraldine Tyler.
Ms. Tyler accrued $2,300 in back taxes on her one bedroom condo in Minneapolis. By the time penalties and interest were added in over a couple of years, she owed $15,000 to Hennepin County, Minnesota. The County seized the condo and sold it one year later for $40,000. Instead of keeping the $15,000 it was owed and refunding the sale surplus, the county pocketed all of the $40,000. Ms. Tyler, represented pro bono by the Pacific Legal Foundation, sued for the $25,000 difference.
Ms. Tyler’s case has now made it to the Supreme Court, asking if Minnesota’s scheme of allowing the County to keep all the funds is either (1) a taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment or (2) an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment.
NTUF and Mackinac argue that Ms. Tyler is facing an excessive fine (it is also a taking, but we focused on the Eighth Amendment question). This case presents the situation of a state authorizing the complete confiscation of property beyond what is needed to satisfy back taxes and standard penalties. In effect, Minnesota law allows the government to add additional fines and continue to punish Ms. Tyler, far beyond the taxes due. This punishment is grossly disproportionate to the harm faced by the government and violates the Eighth Amendment.
Protection from excessive governmental fines is one of our oldest rights, copied almost verbatim to the Eighth Amendment from the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. At the time the Amendment was ratified, a majority of the state constitutions also protected the freedom from excessive fines. Our brief argued that there is no history suggesting that the right to be free from excessive fines should only apply in the criminal context. Instead, the word “fine” by its original meaning can include a civil penalty, like owing property taxes.
Since Hennepin County kept all the proceeds from the sale, it is essentially a fine 67% greater than the value of the unpaid taxes. This undermines any claim the County’s action was “purely remedial” because a solely remedial action would only be to keep what it was owed in unpaid tax, not get a windfall.
Ms. Tyler is entitled to the $25,000 left over from the sale. That the County is keeping it is an excessive fine, when she was already punished by losing her home. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Ms. Tyler’s case on April 26, 2023.