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Although sometimes difficult to detect, governmental power abuses can have detrimental impacts. Property tax assessments provide an effective lens to examine this phenomenon because, given the complexity of calculating property tax assessments, it is difficult for citizens to know when local government has exceeded its legitimate taxing authority and crossed into the realm of illegal extraction. Michigan is an ideal case study because it protects property owners by making assessment-related power abuses more visible through a unique state constitutional provision: property tax assessments cannot exceed 50 percent of a property’s market value. Abuses have persisted nevertheless. Between 2011 and 2015, one in four properties in Detroit were subject to property tax foreclosure, and inflated property tax assessments that violate the Michigan Constitution are the unseen thread in this complex tapestry of foreclosure.
Against this backdrop, this Article makes three primary contributions. First, no other article has argued and proven that property tax assessments in Detroit are illegal. Using assessment and sales data from 2009–2015 for the entire City of Detroit, we find that property tax assessments are substantially in excess of the state constitutional limit, and this illegality is most pronounced for lower-valued properties. Second, to remedy inflated assessments, in 2014 and 2015 Detroit’s assessor implemented assessment decreases ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent for select districts, but we find that systemic assessment inequity persisted for lower valued properties despite these reductions. Third, this Article uses the case of illegal property tax assessments in Detroit to develop a new theoretical concept called “stategraft,” which is when state agents transfer property from residents to the state in violation of the state’s own laws and to the detriment of a vulnerable group. Although the concept was developed using the Detroit case, stategraft applies beyond Detroit to many other cases, including the discriminatory fines imposed and enforced by the police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri; broken treaties with Native Americans; and abuses of civil forfeiture laws.