ACLU of Iowa Sues to Stop Unlawful Tax Searches

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
June 30, 1999 12:00 am

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DES MOINES — The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a Marshall County resident whose real estate taxes were doubled after he refused to consent to a warrantless search of his home.

The ACLU said the case represents the first step toward ending the longstanding practice by some government officials of insisting upon interior inspections of homes in the course of a property tax assessment.

At issue is whether Iowa property tax inspectors have the constitutional and statutory authority to compel taxpayers to open up their homes. Noting that Iowa’s tax laws do not expressly grant such powers to assessors, the ACLU said the practice violates the constitutional rights of citizens to due process, equal protection and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Taxes may be inevitable, but searches should never be,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Ben Stone. “This practice is an example of the creeping erosion of fundamental rights that ends up affecting everyone.”

The ACLU’s 14-page complaint, filed on behalf of Lester Schmidt of Marshall County, charges that insisting on an interior search of homes under threat of a 100 percent tax penalty is a usurpation of legislative and judicial power in violation of the limits placed upon the home rule powers of local officials.

Last year, Polk County authorities backed off a plan to conduct similar inspections, but only after a firestorm of protests erupted. Polk County Assessor James Maloney was then quoted as saying that “the practice [of conducting assessment searches] is prevalent throughout the country.”

“Our client’s goal in bringing this lawsuit is to stop this practice once and for all, and to kick the government out of our bedrooms, literally,” said his attorney, Randall C. Wilson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Iowa.

Wilson added that bringing more than one lawsuit might be necessary since the practice of searching homes is now scattered among Iowa’s ninety-nine counties.

Named as defendants in the suit are the Office of the City Assessor for Marshalltown, Iowa, the Marshall County Treasurer, the Marshall County Board of Supervisors and Roland S. Ehm, the former assessor for Marshalltown.

The ACLU of Iowa is providing both legal counsel and financial sponsorship of the case. The lawsuit is on file with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, located in Des Moines, Iowa.

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