News Story

State Tax Chief Encourages Inspectors To Enter Homes; Refusal Could Lead To Higher Assessment

Lawyer says practice violates the Constitution

When someone comes to your door, you can let them in — or not.

But keeping out a representative from the Michigan Tax Commission could be costly. At least that's what some residents in Davison Township are finding.

When the local tax assessor showed up at homeowner John McLaughlin's house in the Genesee County community he said he wasn't going to let them in. So what happened after he declined the appointment: "My taxes went up," he said.

The executive director of the Michigan Tax Commission said local tax assessors are supposed to be getting inside all homes to see if they are correctly taxed.

"[That] is the goal," said Kelli Sobel, executive director of the Michigan Tax Commission. "They should try to get inside every house so they can assure that the info on the card is correct."

McLaughlin and others in Davison Township said they felt they were being pressured to let tax assessors inside their homes and that they had little choice against doing so. He got advance notice, but said it still wasn't right that the township wanted in.

>"Just like the letter states, what we're trying to do is verify the information on your assessment card to make sure you are correctly accessed," said Township Assessor Kim Nickerson.

McLaughlin said he has nothing to hide. He said he has made no improvements in the home in the two years he's been there. He refused because of the principle.

"I'm a former military member and signed up to protect the Constitution and I know that is a violation of my Fourth Amendment right," McLaughlin said.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Township says it gets its authority to go inside homes from the Michigan State Tax Commission. In 2010, it sent all municipal tax assessors a memo saying, "local units are encouraged to annually inspect a minimum of 20 percent of the parcels each year."

Davison Township took that to mean going inside houses.

When asked if taxes could go up if people denied the tax assessor into their home, Davison's Nickerson said it was possible.

"It depends on what the amount of finished basements of your neighbors that we are allowed access to," Nickerson said. "Your estimate will be based on what your neighbors have."

So if some people in the neighborhood have a finished basement, it is assumed that others have a finished basement?

"That's correct," Nickerson said.

According to the assessor, of 1,200 inspections last year in Davison Township, 308 residents denied entry to their homes; 459 had changes in their assessments.

Instead of challenging those assessments, some taxpayers went to the township board.

"I've lived here 28 years and nobody has come into my house," one citizen said at a recent meeting.

Not all township trustees agree with the practice.

"I think the way this was handled was extremely poor," said Tim Elkins, a township trustee. "I didn't know about this until a friend called me and said 'did you get this?' He read it to me over the phone and I said, 'You're kidding me.' "

The board voted to suspend and then end the interior inspections, but the question on whether a Michigan tax inspector can enter a home remains open.

Under the Freedom of Information act, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy requested a review of correspondence on the issue between local tax departments and the state. The state demanded $2,860 in fees for the FOIA request.

"The Fourth Amendment protects a person's home," said Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. "You need a warrant to go in. An inspector would be able to come to the outside to an area called the 'curtilage' and essentially that's the area where you can start seeing inside the windows. And they can come up to that point, but if they look inside they are violating the Fourth Amendment and need a warrant. The fact that your neighbor may have a finished basement doesn't mean you do. So unless they have a suspicion, maybe they talked to the electrician, then they can get a warrant to come in but until such time they can't charge you more for it."


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.