Warrington Twp. man: County trespassed on property

Greg Gross
  • Scott Johnsen, a Harrisburg Police officer, claims a county official trespassed onto his fenced-in property

A Warrington Township man says a York County official violated the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when the official trespassed on his fenced-in property unannounced.

Scott Johnsen, who happens to be a Harrisburg City Police officer, said he spotted a man, later identified as a county tax assessment official, inside his fenced-in backyard about 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 1.

Johnsen didn't know who the man photographing the home he shares with his wife and their young child was, he told county commissioners at their weekly meeting Wednesday,

"If someone had knocked on my door, I would have been OK with it," he said after the meeting.

But since the official didn't ask permission to come on the property, Johnsen claims that constitutes defiant trespassing under the Pennsylvania criminal code and that the government official also violated the 4th Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches.

However, tax assessment officials can enter private property in order to get a fair assessment, according to Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Entering: Each county has its own policy on officials entering private property to gather information for a tax assessment, Hill said.

But typically an assessor is advised to knock on a door to gain permission from the homeowner. If no one answers, the official can go onto the property, even if it is fenced in, he said.

If the property owner comes home, he or she can ask the official to leave and the official must comply. An assessor is not allowed to look into the window of a home but can only view the exterior of the home, Hill said.

"The law gives us an obligation to get an assessment," Hill said, adding an assessor generally has to see all sides of a home to gather information to make a fair assessment.

What he wants: Johnsen told commissioners he doesn't intend to bring a civil lawsuit against the county. He just wants county tax assessment officials to stop trespassing on private property.

Another less understanding homeowner could take matters into his own hands if he spots an assessor on his property. Or  a tax assessment official could end up arrested if a homeowner called the police, Johnsen said.

"I just want the issue fixed," he said. "My intent is to get the problem addressed."

But that's where Johnsen said he's hit a wall in the months since the incident. County officials told him there was no wrong-doing since Johnsen's property isn't posted with "no trespassing" signs.

Glenn Smith, the county solicitor, declined to address the issue during the meeting because there's a possibility legal action could be brought against the county. He advised commissioners to do the same and, at one point, cut off Susan Byrnes, the president commissioner, to remind her not to address the issue publicly.

Under the state's Sunshine Law, elected officials can meet privately to discuss an issue if they expect litigation.

County response: Although the county declined to discuss the matter, in a statement county spokesman Carl Lindquist said assessors follow the letter of the law when going to properties.

Assessors are required to notify property owners they are on the property. That means they must knock on the door or ring the doorbell. If no one answers, the assessors leave a notice on the door handle and continues an evaluation of the exterior of the property, including going into fenced-in areas, Lindquist said.

If a property is posted with "no trespassing" signs, or if the property owner denies an assessor's request to view the property, the assessor will leave.

"Our staff is trained and certified to follow all statutory, constitutional and common laws in the performance of its duties. We deeply respect the rights of individual property owners and residents," Lindquist said. "The office also has a public duty to protect the rights of the broader community and help ensure equity in the taxation system."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.