Court: County im­prop­erly sold jailed man’s home

The Morning Call - - LOCAL NEWS - By Peter Hall

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]

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