Court: County improperly sold jailed man’s home
ALLENTOWN – More than a year after Craig Hansford was jailed on assault charges, Lehigh County sold his Allentown home to recover unpaid taxes.
A Pennsylvania appeals court ruled this week that the county was wrong to do so without personally notifying Hansford of the sale.
Rejecting the county Tax Claim Bureau’s argument that Hansford was not a resident in the home because he was behind bars, and therefore not entitled to personal notice of the sale under state law, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey noted a similar scenario could play out for others.
“If a property owner was hospitalized … his home would not be considered owner-occupied if an upset tax sale occurred during his hospitalization because he would not be ‘physically present at the property,’” Covey wrote, adding that the same could hold true for retirees who travel south for the winter.
Interpreting the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law in such a way leads to an unreasonable and absurd result, she said.
Hansford, 59, was arrested in May 2016 for attacking another man with a screwdriver at his East Wyoming Street home. After a year in jail, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to four to 10 years in state prison. In a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped an attempted murder charge, court records show.
A few months after his guilty plea, the home he had inherited from his mother was sold as a result of delinquent taxes and purchased by another man for $60,000, the Commonwealth Court opinion says. Hansford appealed, arguing that because he was an owner-occupant of the home, as opposed to a landlord, the county Tax Claim Bureau was required to physically hand him notice of the sale.
“The case law says pretty clearly you can’t take a person’s property without notice,” Hansford’s lawyer Glennis Clark said, adding it was ironic because Hansford was in county custody at the time. “Had they looked, it wouldn’t have been too hard to find Mr. Hansford at that time.”
Hansford filed a petition to reverse the sale, but a Lehigh County judge sided with the Tax Claim Bureau and Hansford appealed.
Lawyers for Northeast Revenue Services, which handles delinquent taxes for Lehigh County, and for the man who bought Hansford’s home did not return calls.
Covey, writing for a threejudge Commonwealth Court panel, said that whether a homeowner who is incarcerated counts as an owner-occupant of a home is a question the court had not previously considered.
The panel also rejected Lehigh County’s argument that Hansford was not an owneroccupant of the home because the tax bills were mailed to a post office box. Covey wrote that the county misconstrued the definition of owner-occupant by focusing on the mailing address rather than whether bills are mailed to an owner who resides at the property.
“Taking the bureau’s argument to its logical conclusion, if the records inadvertently listed the wrong address, and it was undisputed that an owner resided at the property being sold, the owner would not be entitled to personal service merely because of the bureau’s incorrect records,” Covey wrote.
She concluded that the tax sale law was intended to ensure collection of taxes and not to strip residents’ property rights, and the Legislature included the personal notice provision because it believed it was important to give homeowners greater protection for the properties where they reside.
Clark said ownership of the home will now revert to Hansford unless the county or the man who bought it are able to persuade the Commonwealth Court to reconsider or the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal.
Morning Call reporter Peter Hall can be reached at 610-8206581 or [email protected]