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decided: December 3, 1906.




[ 203 U.S. Page 329]

 MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

There are in the State of Kentucky two distinct methods by which an assessment for so-called back taxes can be made. One method is an assessment by a special back tax assessor,

[ 203 U.S. Page 330]

     elected as provided for by an ordinance of the city of Lexington. This ordinance the Court of Appeals of the State of Kentucky has held, contrary to the contention of the plaintiff in this case, did not displace the regular assessor, or affect his right to make an assessment for back taxes. The other method provides for an assessment by the regular assessor, under section 3179 of the laws relating to the city of Lexington, which section, among other things therein contained, provides that: "Whenever the assessor shall ascertain that there has, in any former year or years, been any property omitted which should have been taxed, he shall assess the same against the person who should have been assessed with it, if living; if not against his representative."

In this case the assessment for back taxes was made by the regular assessor, but not until December 31, 1898, under the above quoted provision in section 3179. It was, however, a special assessment, made after the regular assessment in the assessor's books of 1898, and after such books had been transmitted within the time prescribed by law (sec. 3180) December 1, 1898, to the auditor, subject to the inspection of the public. In regard to the regular assessment the Statutes of Kentucky provide (section 3181) for a board of equalization, which sits on the first Monday of January, and continues in session not longer than four weeks. The auditor must deliver to the board the assessment books filed with him by the assessor, and it is to hear all complaints against the assessments made by the assessor, and may determine the same, but it cannot increase the assessment without notice to the party whose property is to be increased. The section is part of the general statutes as to assessments for the annual taxes, and it refers evidently to the assessments made by the assessor up to the first of December preceding, and which appear in the book which the law directs to be sent to the auditor and by him transmitted to the board of equalization. It does not refer to an extraordinary assessment made by the assessor for back taxes subsequently to the time provided for by law for

[ 203 U.S. Page 331]

     the making of the general assessment. The assessor must return the general assessment which he makes in his book under section 3179 to the auditor on or before December 1 in each year. (Section 3180.) This book remains in the auditor's office subject to the inspection of the public until transmitted, in the January following, to the board of equalization, under section 3181. In the case before us the assessment for the back tax was made December 31, 1898, be entering a separate assessment for each year in the assessor's book for that year, and, therefore, these various assessments were not contained in the books of the assessor, as they were sent to the auditor on December 1 of each year respectively. The assessor's books for the years prior to 1898 were obtained in some way, and the entries of the assessments were therein made, because, as stated, there were no other books provided. We find no provision of the statute as to assessments for back taxes which requires notice of such assessment if made at any time other than in the regular course for the general assessment as provided for in the general statute. If the assessment happens to be made in the assessor's book prior to December 1 in any year it, of course, goes with the book to the auditor, and remains there for inspection by the public until taken before the board of equalization. Such an assessment would carry with it the provision of the law of the State applicable to the city on the subject of assessments, including the general notice under the law providing for such assessment. But that, of course, cannot apply where the assessment is not made on or before December 1, in the regular assessment book. That book the taxpayer must omit to examine at his peril, when filed with the auditor, or when before the board of equalization. As sent to the auditor, December 1, 1898, the book did not contain the assessment in question. And as to the books of the former years, they had passed out of the legal custody of the assessor, and he could not take any of such books and, without notice, impose a conclusive assessment for back taxes for the particular year the book had been made

[ 203 U.S. Page 332]

     use of as an assessment book. Such assessment could not be enforced unless the taxpayer could thereafter at some time, and as a matter of right, be heard upon the question of the validity and the amount of such tax. The general statutory notice as to the regular assessment proceedings cannot be regarded as notice of this special assessment made years after the completion of the old assessments.

In regard to the question of notice, the Court of Appeals held that the burden of proof in such a proceeding as this was upon the plaintiff to establish that there was no notice of the assessment given it; but it also held that the defendant had, in fact, proved that there was notice given to the plaintiff in error before the assessment was made. This applies to a notice in fact, but the Court of Appeals did not hold that there was any notice made necessary by the statute in regard to such a special assessment as above described. An assessment made on December 31, 1898, in the manner set forth, although imposed before the meeting of the board of equalization in January following, was not imposed at a time which made the general statutes as to assessments applicable, and, therefore, the taxpayer had no statutory notice or opportunity furnished him to appear and be heard before the board. He may have examined the assessor's books for the various years 1894-1898, when filed in the auditor's office on the first of December, by the assessor, and prior to December 31, when this assessment was made, and found that there was no assessment made against him for any back taxes. There was no statutory obligation imposed on him to again examine the books lest perchance they may have had an interlined assessment made in them, for the making of which the law provided no notice. It follows that the subsequent assessments placed in such books and not appearing on any book when sent to the auditor by the assessor, would not be made under any statutory provision for notice, and would not afford the taxpayer an opportunity to be heard before the board of equalization in regard to the illegality of such tax.

[ 203 U.S. Page 333]

     If the statute did not provide for a notice in any form, it is not material that as a matter of grace or favor notice may have been given of the proposed assessment. It is not what notice, uncalled for by the statute, the taxpayer may have received in a particular case that is material, but the question is, whether any notice is provided for by the statute. Stuart v. Palmer, 74 N.Y. 183. Before this special assessment could be actually enforced or during the process of enforcement the taxpayer must have an opportunity to be heard as to its validity and extent. In Wayerhaueser v. Minnesota, 176 U.S. 550, it was held that the taxpayer was entitled to an opportunity to be heard before the tax could be enforced (see page 556); that the filing of the tax list therein spoken of was, in effect, as held by the court, the institution of an action against each tract of land described in it, and the taxpayer thereafter had opportunity to make any defense he might have. This the court held was sufficient. The proceedings leading up to that assessment originated in a complaint, in writing, to the governor, who thereupon appointed a commission to hear the matter, and if proper, impose ...

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