Google search not enough to locate taxpayer, court says

Pennsylvania county says Google search to locate a man whose property was later sold for back taxes was sufficient. State court disagrees.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
A Pennsylvania court has ruled that a Google search a county performed to locate someone who owed back taxes on a property was insufficient.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania said on May 31 that Northampton County, a mostly suburban area an hour's drive north of Philadelphia, should have used the phone book instead.

A supervisor in Northampton's tax claim department did not check a telephone book to try to reach Charles Fernandez, who owed $395.36 in back taxes on a vacant lot in Easton, Pa. Instead, she did a Google search for his name and found a phone number for a "Chuck Fernandez" with what seemed to be the correct address--but the number proved to be disconnected.

The county claimed that a notice was posted on the property in July and August 2004, and a judicial sale of the property was held in January 2005. Fernandez says he never saw any notices posted. A certified letter sent to him was returned as undeliverable.

When Fernandez finally contacted the county in March 2005 about his back taxes, he learned about the sale at that time. Two months later, he filed a lawsuit arguing that he wasn't properly notified and accusing Northampton County of not making sufficient efforts to try to find him.

A county judge rejected the arguments, saying the tax bureau had engaged in reasonable efforts, and Fernandez appealed.

He claimed that because the certified letter was returned, Northampton was obligated to take reasonable additional steps beyond a Google search. According to the appeals court, "The bureau argues that its efforts, most notably the computer 'Google' search and the telephoning of the telephone number the search obtained, was sufficient."

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania sided with Fernandez and reversed the decision of the trial court, saying, "We find that the Bureau failed to strictly adhere to the statutory requirements and that this failure, by itself, is sufficient to sustain owner's petition."

The court also noted that if Northampton's tax collectors looked up his number in the phone book, they "may have been able to reach him" and concluded that "it does seem that the county failed to search the countywide telephone book, which, by the law, it was required to consult."