Supreme Court to hear case from elderly MN Woman whose condo was seized over a $2,300 fine
Hennepin County seized the condo and sold it for $40,000… and kept every penny.
93-year old Geraldine Tyler owned outright a small condo in Minneapolis. After rising crime in the area, Ms. Tyler rented an apartment in a safer area. Ms. Taylor had trouble making ends meet and accrued $2,300 in delinquent property taxes. Over the next five years, the debt, which now included penalties, interest, and fees totaled $15,000. At that point, Hennepin County seized and sold the condo for $40,000.
Now, logic would tell you, if the condo sold for $40,000, and the fine, fees, and interest amounted to $15,000, Ms. Tyler should have received a check for $25,000 (or perhaps a little less to cover the costs of selling the condo). But… Hennepin County kept all $40,000, claiming the state had “absolute title” to the property after Ms. Tyler “abandoned” it for five years.
The 8th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal in favor of Hennepin County holding that:
1935 Minn. Laws, ch. 386, § 8. The statute allocated the entire surplus [for tax-forfeited properties] to various entities but allowed for no distribution of net proceeds to the former landowner.
Tyler appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States, who this week granted certiorari.
There are two questions presented by Ms. Tyler in this case:
- Whether taking and selling a home to satisfy a debt to the government, and keeping the surplus value as a windfall, violates the Takings Clause?
- Whether the forfeiture of property worth far more than needed to satisfy a debt plus interest, penalties, and costs, is a fine within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment?
What is the Takings Clause?
The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This clause has been interpreted by the courts to mean that the government cannot take private property without providing just compensation to the property owner.
Hennepin County is relying on the fact that the state has been seizing properties like this since statehood without a successful challenge.
What about the Eighth Amendment?
The Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment places limits on the fines that the government can impose on individuals who have committed offenses. The fines must be proportional and cannot be so large that they effectively constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has held that a fine is excessive if it is “grossly disproportional” to the offense committed. United States v. Bajakajian (1998) The Court has also held that the purpose of fines is not to compensate the government, but rather to punish the offender for their conduct. Austin v. United States (1993)
Ms. Tyler is not contesting the $15,000 owed to Hennepin County, though the circumstances that permit a $2,300 fine to inflate to a $15,000 is a topic worth discussion in the context of the eighth amendment.
Tyler v. Hennepin County could be heard as early as this term before the Court recesses this summer, but may be held over until next year.