Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Court: Google Search for Delinquent Taxpayer Not Sufficient for Government to Sell Property for Back Taxes

Interesting article in today's CNet News:  Google Search Not Enough to Locate Taxpayer, Court Says, by Declan McCullagh:

A Pennsylvania court has ruled that a Google search a county performed to locate someone who owed back taxes on a property was insufficient. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania said on May 31 that Northampton County, a mostly suburban area an hour's drive north of Philadelphia, should have used the phone book instead.

A supervisor in Northampton's tax claim department did not check a telephone book to try to reach Charles Fernandez, who owed $395.36 in back taxes on a vacant lot in Easton, Penn. Instead, she did a Google search for his name and found a phone number for a "Chuck Fernandez" with what seemed to be the correct address -- but the number proved to be disconnected.

The county claimed that a notice was posted on the property in July and August 2004, and a judicial sale of the property was held in January 2005. Fernandez says he never saw any notices posted. A certified letter sent to him was returned as undeliverable. ...

A county judge rejected the arguments, saying the tax bureau had engaged in reasonable efforts, and Fernandez appealed. ... The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania sided with Fernandez and reversed the decision of the trial court.

The case is Fernandez v. Tax Claim Bureau of Northampton County, No. 1600 C.D. 2006 (Penn. Comm. Ct. 5/30/07):

The Bureau argues that its efforts, most notably the computer “Google” search and the telephoning of the telephone number the search obtained, was sufficient. ...

[The] failure to consult with the[] tax assessment offices provides sufficient basis on its own to require the judicial sale to be set aside. Fn.17

Fn.17:  [T]he County failed to search the county-wide telephone book, which, by the Law, it was required to consult. ...

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Can you say "police state"?

Posted by: Emma Goldmann | Jun 7, 2007 11:19:44 AM

This seems like a possible comedy of errors all around. Mr. Fernandez may be shading the truth when he says he never saw the posted tax sale notices. But the PA tax collectors ought to know better than to try and use a Google search as a substitute for probative evidence.

Posted by: Jake | Jun 6, 2007 8:24:44 PM