The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that a county’s decision to keep surplus profits after selling a 94-year-old woman’s home to cover a tax debt violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Geraldine Tyler owed a $15,000 tax debt on one-bedroom Minneapolis condo; to pay the debt, Hennepin County, Minnesota sold her home for $40,000—and kept the extra $25,000 beyond what was owed. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion of the Court that the taxpayer must “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more,” effectively ending the practice of home equity theft.
“The County had the power to sell Tyler’s home to recover the unpaid property taxes,” he wrote. “But it could not use the toehold of the tax debt to confiscate more property than was due.”
Home equity theft is already illegal in all but a dozen states and Washington, D.C.
Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, which Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined, adding that the county’s action also violates the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.
“Economic penalties imposed to deter willful noncompliance with the law are fines by any other name,” he wrote. “And the Constitution has something to say about them: They cannot be excessive.”
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