News Story

Invasion of Privacy? Tax Assessors Taking Photos on Private Property

Township employee ignores no trespassing warning and posts photos online

When Jeff Stout posted a "no trespassing" sign on the mailbox outside his Cannon Township home in suburban Grand Rapids, he thought that would be enough to keep strangers off his property. Then, he saw a picture of his backyard on the township’s website, taken by township tax assessors.

“These pictures are on the township website, along with pictures of the front and back of everyone’s houses, available for public viewing, possibly a privacy concern, or maybe of use to criminals,” said Stout.

The pictures show parts of the property that cannot be seen from the street or in images on Google or real estate websites. They show the layout of backyards and unattached furnishings that potentially could be of interest to thieves.

While many communities post property photos on their websites, most show no more than what someone could view from the street. Township assessor Matthew Frain doesn’t see a problem with the backyard photos and beyond-the-tree front yard shots Cannon Township displays.

“They (the photos) are in our database, and yes, it is available under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act),” said Frain.

He acknowledged the state does not require communities to post such photos on the Internet, and did not explain what public purpose is served by posting them.

“It’s just all part of our software program and I’m not aware of any community that limits the use of photos,” said Frain.

More troubling for Stout was the township ignoring requests he made that went beyond just posting the “no trespassing” sign. Weeks earlier, after getting a postcard announcing that assessors would be in the neighborhood, the homeowner informed the township that he wanted no visits.

Stout questioned the legality of the on-site visits and said the township attorney seemed to concur that assessors have no legal or statutory authority to enter private property. Stout was also concerned that the postcard did not state that homeowners had the right to refuse the inspections.

“According to the research I have done, the U.S. Constitution, Fourth Amendment, prohibits government personnel from going inside the ‘curtilage’ without a warrant,” said Stout, who says it is impossible for assessors not to violate this when they are measuring your house and can easily see in windows.

Frain disagrees that the postcards need to explain a homeowner's right to bow out.

“People understand what their property rights are. Most are very courteous at the door and if they want us to leave, we leave,” said Frain.

But if there is no request ahead of time and the homeowner is not home at the time of the visit, Frain says his staff will proceed with measuring the home and taking photographs, even if there is a “no trespassing" sign.

Frain said he had many legal opinions on the legality of his staff making visits on private property.

Stout did indeed see the assessors on his property, asked them to leave and then called the county sheriff because they ignored his sign. However, he apparently did not stop the assessors before they took the photos of his property.

The Kent County prosecuting attorney's office did not file charges against the assessors.

Assistant District Attorney Dan Helmer did not return phone calls.

“I was shocked that the assessors would disregard my 'no trespassing' sign,” said Stout. He complained at a township board meeting but he said nothing has changed. He was told simply changing the postcard to state homeowners had the right to refuse the visits would cause difficulty for the assessors.

Assessors say they are under pressure to be more thorough in their work after the state began requiring communities to visit 20 percent of their properties in a given year. If the state suspects communities are not doing thorough assessments, they could be subject to an audit, a lengthy and expensive process.

“There is a fear among some assessors they are going to fail those,” said Laurie Spencer, who is the equalization director for Leelanau County.

She says her job is to see that the taxation process is fair and equitable and that assessors do honor requests to stay off property.

“I don’t know of any assessor who would not abide by that,” said Spencer.

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.