April 26, 2006

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Is Major Victory for Due Process Rights; State Did Nothing to Notify Owner of Tax Sale After Mail Was Returned Undelivered

Public Citizen Represented Man Whose House Was Seized

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a major victory for due process rights, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of an Arkansas man whose house was sold by the state after mailed notice of the impending forfeiture was returned undelivered. Public Citizen argued the case, Jones v. Flowers, in front of the Supreme Court in January.

The case involves an Arkansas man, Gary Jones, who in 1997, paid off a 30-year mortgage on his home in Little Rock. Although Jones had separated from his wife and moved out in 1993, the house remained in his name. After the house was paid off, the property taxes went unpaid.

The state certified Jones’s property as delinquent for non-payment of taxes for 1997 and later years. In April 2000, the state mailed a certified letter to Jones in an attempt to alert him to the upcoming sale of the home. Because the notice was sent to the house and not to Jones’ apartment, he didn’t receive it. Even though Jones’ location was readily available from a variety of sources, the state made no further attempt to find Jones, contact the occupants or otherwise provide effective notice. A state employee even drove by the house before the sale to view it but did not post a notice or knock on the door. The state then sold the house. After the occupants of the home were served with an eviction notice, they called Jones – the first notice he had of the delinquent taxes.

Jones sued, saying he had not been adequately notified of the sale. Jones lost in the trial court and Arkansas Supreme Court. Today the Supreme Court ruled that when mailed notice of a tax sale is returned undelivered, the U.S. Constitution requires the government to take additional reasonable steps to attempt to provide notice to the owner before selling the property.

“All state governments that do not have proper procedures in place will have to revamp them in light of this decision,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, the Public Citizen attorney who argued the case. “This is major victory for citizens everywhere who have had their property taken by the government without receiving notice. If Mr. Jones had been given proper notice, he would have paid the back taxes and kept his property.”

Public Citizen represented Jones as part of its Supreme Court Assistance Project, a program through which Public Citizen attorneys provide assistance to underdog lawyers who seek Supreme Court review of their cases. These cases often involve claims of government misconduct, corporate bullying or situations where workers, tort plaintiffs or civil rights claimants win significant awards or establish important rules of law.