A Nebraska County Took His $25,000 Property To Settle a $986 Tax Debt. Now the U.S. Supreme Court Could Get Involved.
Walter Barnette knew he owed property taxes to the Nebraska county where he lived, but he didn’t know that his own land had been sold out from under him until it had already happened.
Under Nebraska state law, counties are allowed to seize properties with delinquent taxes and turn those properties over to private investors—and as Barnette learned the hard way in 2013, it can happen without the current property owner even being notified. But after the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the seizure and selling of Barnette’s land without his knowledge, attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a pro-market law firm, are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review the practice.
What happened to Barnette seems like it could happen to anyone. He’d bought an acre of land in Bellevue, Nebraska, in 2002 but fell behind on his tax payments during the Great Recession. He owed $986 in back taxes by 2013—plus a few hundred dollars in fees, interest, and penalties—when Sarpy County offered Barnette’s land to a private investor who offered to pay off the debt.
Under state law, the investor, Pontian Land Holdings LLC, was required to notify Barnette of the potential sale before it could take possession of his title by sending a letter via certified mail. But the letter was never delivered—it was, according to court documents, returned to Pontian three times as unclaimed—and the state does not require any additional follow-up.
Having met the incredibly limited notificat
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