TURPIN V. LEMON, 187 U. S. 51 (1902)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Turpin v. Lemon, 187 U.S. 51 (1902)

Turpin v. Lemon

No. 35

Argued March 17, 1902

Decided November 3, 1902

187 U.S. 51


The statutes of West Virginia in regard to the sale of land for unpaid taxes require certain proceedings to be taken by the sheriff, but do not require the sheriff to show in his return that he has complied with these requirements; the statutes also make the deed given by the sheriff prima facie evidence that the material facts therein recited are true. Held that the effect of these statutes is to change the burden of proof, which rested at common law upon the purchaser at a tax sale to show the regularity of all proceedings prior to the deed, and to cast it upon the party who contests the sale.

Exactly what due process of law requires in the assessment and collection of general taxes has never yet been decided by this Court; while it has been held that notice must be given to the owner at some stage of proceedings for condemnation or imposition of special taxes, it has also been held that laws for assessment and collection of general taxes stand upon a somewhat different footing, and are construed with the utmost liberality, sometimes even to the extent of holding that no notice whatever is necessary (Mr. Justice Field's definition of "due process of law" in Hager v. Reclamation District, 111 U. S. 701, followed), and the Fourteenth Amendment is satisfied by showing that the usual course prescribed by the state laws requires notice to the taxpayers, and is in conformity with natural justice.

A plaintiff is bound to show that he has personally suffered an injury by the application of a law before he can institute a bill for relief to test its constitutionality.

This was an appeal from a decree of the Circuit Court for the District of West Virginia sustaining a demurrer to and dismissing a bill filed for the purpose of impeaching a tax sale and deed of certain lands, and of obtaining a judicial declaration that the defendants, who were purchasers under such tax deed, took no title to or interest in such lands.

The facts set forth in the bill were substantially as follows: on April 30, 1874, Turpin, a citizen of the State of Pennsylvania, purchased from the executors of one Smith C. Hill 225 acres of land in the County of Ritchie, West Virginia, and received

Page 187 U. S. 52

a deed therefor. In the year 1879, 100 acres of this land were sold for delinquent taxes for prior years, by which the quantity owned by Turpin was diminished to 125 acres, which were assessed to him for taxes for the years 1883 and 1884. Being absent from the state for several years, in poor health, and unfit for business, he paid no attention to the land, which was returned delinquent for the nonpayment of these taxes, and was sold by the sheriff of Ritchie County for such taxes on January 12, 1886. Having failed to redeem the land within the year allowed by law from the time of the sale, on February 3, 1887, some weeks after the expiration of the year, a deed was made by the clerk of the County Court of Ritchie County to the defendants.

Nothing was done, and no effort was made to pay these taxes, until about February 21, 1899, when Turpin met the defendant John B. Lemon, and tendered him the sum of $176.50, to cover the amount of the taxes paid by the defendants in the purchase of the land, and all taxes paid by them subsequently, as well as the cost of all surveys, etc., which amount he now offers to pay into court; but Lemon refused to receive the money, and has since cut large quantities of timber and removed the same from the land.

Whereupon he filed this bill, which really raises but a single question, and that is whether the laws of the State of West Virginia enacted with reference to the sale of delinquent lands for taxes are contrary to the Constitution of the United States, or constitute due process of law within the Fourteenth Amendment. Other questions were raised in the bill, but, in his petition for an appeal to this Court, the appellant rests his case upon the single question of the constitutionality of these laws.

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