Property Tax Assessment Procedures

January 3, 2018 We represent clients who have their property assessed, for tax purposes, who sometimes wish to challenge the revaluation of their property. In a recent 2017 Supreme Court of Wisconsin case, Milewski v. Town of Dover, Board of Review, 2017 WI 79, the Supreme Court found that the requirement under Wisconsin Statutes conditioning a property owner’s right to challenge the assessor’s valuation of the property on submission to the inside of their home, was unconstitutional. Applying Wis. Stat. §§70.47 and 74.37 in a manner that required submission to a tax assessor’s search as a precondition to challenging the revaluation of their property violated the homeowner’s due process rights as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Article I, Section 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution. Our clients do not need to submit to an unconstitutional search of their home by a tax assessor before presenting their challenge to their property assessments. In this particular case, the Town told the property owner that they must either submit to the tax assessor’s inspection of the interior of their home or lose the right to challenge the revaluation of their property. This decision is important because it completely changes strategies of property owners in property tax assessment challenges. This case is important because it upheld and protected the sanctity of the property owner’s home (under the 4th and 14th Amendments), as well as their right to contest the Town’s revaluation. The Wisconsin Supreme Court found that an “interior view” was a “search” and was an unreasonable search. Our clients can prevent the tax assessor from inspecting the interior of their home, and now still have the right to challenge the tax assessor’s revaluation of their property. I believe the decision in this Wisconsin Supreme Court case preserves the home’s sanctity, including sanctity against revenue agents by making it clear that tax assessors trespass if they enter a home without consent. The Court appears to have stated that if a government agent occupies private property for the purpose of obtaining information, the government agent is conducting a search within the meaning of the 4th Amendment. The Court concluded that a tax assessor who enters a home to conduct an “interior view” occupies private property for the purpose of obtaining information and therefore is conducting a search within the meaning of the 4th Amendment. “It is a basic principle of the 4th Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” The Town argued that the interior view was a “minor intrusion.” The United States Supreme Court said that, “[W]hen it comes to the 4th Amendment, the home is first among equals.” Florida v. Jardines , 569 U.S. 1, 133 S. Ct. 1409, 1414 (2013). In Wisconsin there can be no doubt that the 4th Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house and that it is the duty of courts to zealously guard that line. State v. Sobczak , 2013 WI 52, 347 Wis. 2d 724, 833 N.W.2d 59. The Supreme Court went on to state that the point is to protect the person’s right to be secure in one’s home, to lie in repose, or partake of what activities one wishes, free of the government’s watchful eye. The 4th Amendment’s promise is that a person may stand in his door and tell the government agent, “You shall not pass.” I wish to point out that there is discussion in the most recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision referenced above to the government obtaining a “warrant” to inspect the interior of every property owner’s home. I think the Supreme Court of Wisconsin left open the possibility of the Township to seek a warrant from a court to conduct interior inspections of homes. Part of the decision concluded that there “. . . was no substitute for a neutral magistrate’s review before intruding in someone’s home.” The Court stated that a tax assessor may base his valuation on either an actual view of the home or, instead, the “best information” practicably available to him. If he believes that the “best information” available still leaves him with insufficient data on which to build a constitutionally-sound valuation for a specific home, he may explain why that is so in his application for an administrative warrant.” State statutes give municipalities, and thus municipal courts, the right to adopt ordinances to enforce building codes. I believe that some municipalities will assert that municipal courts have the authority to issue special inspection warrants pursuant to Wis. Stats. §755.045(2) and §66.0119. There is no question that §66.0119 indicates that a municipal employee may apply for, obtain, and execute a special inspection warrant issued under that section. Under that section, “inspection purposes” include “property assessment.” The Supreme Court’s majority decision goes on for 53 pages. One of the concurring decisions goes on for 11 pages. The second concurring decision is four pages in length. The dissent (Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson) goes on for 47 pages. I am not convinced that the “dilemma” for our clients has been resolved by this decision. First and foremost, our clients have the right to deny inspection of the interior of their home by the property tax assessor. However, if there is a denial of the property assessor’s access to view the interior of our client’s home, the property inspector could apply to a court (circuit or municipal) in order to obtain a special inspection warrant. It will be up to those individual judges to decide whether to grant such requests for home searches.