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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Supreme Court Grants Justice to 94-Year-old Grandmother Whose Home Equity Was Stolen by Government

The shameless theft of a poor, elderly woman’s home is a sad reminder of how often the law is perverted in modern America.


Ninety-four year-old Geraldine Tyler had to spend her twilight years living in an apartment when Hennepin County took her Minneapolis area home in 2010 after she fell behind on her taxes.

Nearly 15 years later, the US Supreme Court ruled that taking Tyler’s home over unpaid taxes was one thing, but stealing Tyler’s equity in the home was another matter.

“The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but not more,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an unanimous opinion on Thursday that held Hennepin County had violated Tyler’s rights.

Hennepin County’s theft of Tyler’s property was as brazen as any highwayman’s.

After purchasing a condo in 2009, Tyler was forced to relocate for personal reasons. As she struggled to maintain payments on two homes, she fell behind in her taxes. When a $2,300 tax bill swelled to some $15,000 because of fees and interest, local authorities took Tyler’s home and sold it for $40,000. But instead of keeping the $15,000 they were legally owed, Hennepin County decided to pocket the $25,000 of equity Tyler still had in the home.

The county’s theft action was a violation of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, the high court ruled, a violation of the takings clause, which states that “private property” cannot be “taken for public use, without just compensation.”

That the 94-year-old grandmother’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court might seem astonishing at first blush. But Billy Binnion of Reason noted that the practice, known as home equity theft, is surprisingly common despite hundreds of years of legal precedents stretching back to the Magna Carta that recognize that taxpayers are entitled to the surplus when a debt is paid.

“Home equity theft is legal in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, and the District of Columbia,” wrote Binnion, “although today’s ruling should hamstring those forfeiture schemes.”

A Perversion of the Law

Let’s hope it does hamstring those schemes. But Hennepin County’s shameless theft of a poor, elderly woman’s home is a sad reminder of how often the law is perverted in modern America.

In his classic work The Law, the French economist Frédéric Bastiat explained that men and women enter the social contract to protect life, liberty, and private property. Eventually, however, the authority derived from the social contract—the state—becomes a threat to liberty and property, often through what Bastiat described as “legal plunder.”

“…how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply” Bastiat wrote. “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong.”

This is precisely what states and counties like Hennepin do through civil asset forfeiture, home equity theft, and other redistributive schemes. They take the property of others through force or the threat of force, and the reasons they do so have not changed since the 19th century.

“Legal plunder has two roots,” Bastiat noted. “One of them… is in human greed; the other is in false philanthropy.”

In the case of Geraldine Tyler, it was likely a mixture of both: greed and faux philanthropy. Government officials no doubt wanted the property for selfish reasons (greed) and had a vague idea that the taking was just and would serve a greater “public good.”

Chief Justice Roberts made it clear that there was nothing just, legal, or philanthropic in Hennepin County’s blatant act of legal plunder.

“A taxpayer who loses her $40,000 house to the State to fulfill a $15,000 tax debt has made a far greater contribution to the public fisc than she owed,” he said.

Indeed. The fact that it took nearly a decade-and-a-half for Tyler to win in what was such an obvious miscarriage of justice is evidence of how far America has strayed from the law’s moral purpose.

But it also shows that the wheels of justice do still turn…albeit slowly.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.