Un-American: The court seizes a house over an unpaid late fee

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"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-- Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

This grand principle is among those that make America different from many other countries. It is the great protection of the people against arbitrary government actions. Americans everywhere recognize this, except ... in Beaver County. Or so it seems.

Consider the plight of Eileen Battisti of Center, who lost her house because of $6.30 in unpaid late fees and interest. She bought the house with her husband in 1999, then he died in 2004. She used his life insurance to pay off the mortgage, but she struggled to pay her bills -- one of which was a tax bill from the Central Valley School District.

She paid the amount she believed she owed -- $897.17 -- but an interim charge of $6.30 was assessed and it became $28.25 with postage and costs. But the notice was returned to the Tax Claim Bureau as unclaimed and no further notices were apparently sent. Her house, valued at $260,000, was sold for $116,000 at a tax sale to satisfy a debt that had grown to $234.72. Without holding a hearing, Common Pleas Court Judge Gus Kwidis ruled that this was all legal.

On Monday, Commonwealth Court sent the case back to the judge, saying he did not give Ms. Battisti her due process rights. If the facts are as stated, if the Fourth Amendment means anything, Beaver County owes the woman her house back and the authors of the Constitution an apology.



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