Property Tax Post: Property Assessment and the Fourth Amendment—Can Property Inspections Violate Constitutional Rights?

Does inspecting a home’s interior for property tax assessment violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?  Homeowners in several states have filed lawsuits for a clear answer on the right to refuse a warrantless search without penalty.

Consider New Hampshire. Some revaluations require the assessor to physically inspect the property. If the assessor cannot obtain consent to enter the property, then he or she may obtain an administrative inspection warrant.

Often, refusing entry causes a homeowner to lose the right to appeal an inaccurate assessment. In 2014, local Delaware newspaper The Journal Times covered a story of a couple who sued the town of Dover for violating their constitutional rights. The couple claimed that after refusing the assessor entry into their home, their property reassessment was higher than market value and they were denied the opportunity to challenge their reassessment.

In 2013, homeowners in Davidson Township, Michigan were able to suspend and eventually end in-home inspections for assessment purposes, based upon violation of the Fourth Amendment. Local news outlet reported that assessors conducted voluntary inspections to look for finished basements and count features such as bathrooms and fireplaces. Individuals who refused the in-home inspection would have their homes valued based upon an exterior inspection and the value of the neighboring homes, which some homeowners reported resulted in an increase in property tax. 

A Louisiana Court of Appeals recently ruled on a case where property owners claimed an inspection of their property was conducted in a manner that violated their constitutional rights. In King v. Handorff, No. 15-30630, U.S. Ct. App. 5th Circuit (May 6, 2016), the property owners appealed a property tax assessment which resulted in a decrease in property tax. The assessor appealed and sent employees to reassess the property in question. The assessors never entered the interior of the property, but the owner claimed the assessor peered through the windows into the home. The homeowner also alleged that a pool house door was ajar and suspected that the assessor opened it. The trial court held that while the assessor had consent to conduct a tax appraisal, he exceeded the consent by being on curtilage, peering into the windows, and opening the pool house door.  On appeal, the Court found that the assessor was entitled to qualified immunity. There was no indication that he was on the property for improper reasons that had no nexus to his legitimate administrative goals.

Assessors often argue that entry into the home is necessary for accurate reporting and to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of taxes. Homeowners argue that the inspections are unnecessary and intrusive. Where an assessment is incorrect, the burden of proof falls on the owner, who may submit photographs or an appraisal from a third party as evidence and proof of value. Wherever your opinions fall on the spectrum of Fourth Amendment violation and property tax assessment, it seems that most folks don’t like the idea of someone demanding entry into a home for any reason, least of all a tax assessment.

Continue the discussion on LinkedIn:  Are interior inspections necessary to properly assess home values?

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By Cynthia N. Wells