SCOTUS Takes Up Case of Private Property Forced to Become Public

The Washington Free Beacon – Knick v. Scott Township raises questions of which courts protect property.

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would hear arguments in the case of a Pennsylvania farm owner whose case could potentially overturn part of a previous ruling that critics have attacked as making it much harder for property owners to protect their rights in federal court.

The case, Knick v. Scott Township, Pennsylvania, concerns Rose Mary Knick, who owns a 90-acre property in rural eastern Pennsylvania, where she and her family have lived since 1970. Knick found herself subjected to a township ordinance which allowed anyone—including township employees—to freely pass on her private property. Knick v. Scott Township concerns Knick’s attempt to secure her property rights in both state and federal court, and the unexpected procedural stoppages that have kept her normally private farm free and open to the public.

“Property owners are treated differently, and more poorly, than other classes of citizens when it comes to having a day in court. Mrs. Knick’s catch-22 case, where she’s yanked around from state to federal to state court without a hearing is an example of that,” said J. David Breemer, a senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing Knick.

Knick’s story begins in 2008, when someone made a public inquiry suggesting that there was an “ancient burial ground” on her land. Knick denied any such burial ground’s existence, which further was not documented either on her title or in any official state registry or documentation.

In 2012, the township created a first-of-its-kind ordinance mandating that owners of cemeteries allow right-of-way and access to the sites during daylight hours, even if said cemeteries are on private property. That regulation was called “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect” by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard Knick’s case before it went to the Supreme Court.

What the ordinance meant was that members of the public could enter Knick’s otherwise-private property with abandon, based on the alleged but seemingly non-existent cemetery. The ordinance also meant that a township code enforcement officer entered Knick’s property without permission, in what may constitute a violation of Knick’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search.

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