A Washington man is suing the county and the district attorney’s chief detective for allegedly violating his constitutional rights by bringing criminal charges against him, which were later dismissed, stemming from the sale of a tax-delinquent property.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in Washington County Court on behalf of Billy Joe Sanders and names Washington County and Michael Aaron, chief county detective in the district attorney’s office, as defendants.
The suit alleges the county and Aaron violated the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens against searches and seizures without probable cause, after the detective filed criminal charges against Sanders for selling a property that had already been disposed of during a tax sale. The suit also claims the county violated the 14th Amendment’s civil rights provisions and failed to take measures to prevent police misconduct. Sanders is seeking compensatory damages in excess of $25,000.
In late May 2006, Sanders, 45, finalized the sale of a property he had owned at 200 Maplewood Drive, McMurray, despite the fact that it had been sold more than eight months earlier by the Washington County Tax Claim Bureau, court records show.
Sanders had filed a petition objecting to the tax sale in October 2005 and made an agreement to sell the property to a man for $160,000 a few months later, according to court documents. President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca ruled in early May 2006 that the tax sale was permitted.
Little more than a week after the judge’s decision, Sanders filed an appeal in state Commonwealth Court. Believing the tax sale would be set aside, he proceeded to finalize the sale while the appeal was pending, according to the suit. However, the appeal was dismissed by the higher court a few months later.
In May 2008, Sanders was arrested and charged with two counts of theft and one count each of false sworn statements, theft by deception and securing execution of documents by deception. He later was released on $160,000 unsecured bail, court records show. The charges were ultimately dismissed in 2011 for reasons not immediately available.
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, First Assistant District Attorney Michael Lucas said his office had been made aware of the suit earlier in the day, but would need time to review it with the county’s solicitor before commenting on its merits. Washington County solicitor Lynn DeHaven said the suit would be referred to the county’s insurance carrier.
“How the county is involved is beyond me,” DeHaven said, pointing out that the Washington County Police Department mentioned in the suit does not exist.
Sanders’ attorney, Herbert Terrell of Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment.
Last month, Sanders made headlines when he and two fellow trustees of LotsofRealty.com, a McMurray-based online realty company, were granted an injunction against county Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella as part of a lawsuit alleging she was delaying the transfer of deeds by imposing additional requirements not called for under state law. Bardella had reportedly refused to file deeds granted to a trust that do not name an individual, execute a trust agreement or contain a concise property decision. The suit also claims that it is a conflict of interest for Bardella to serve as the recorder of deeds and the director of the county tax revenue department and tax claim bureau.
According to the court order, Bardella cannot refuse to accept deeds with trusts listed on them as long as they are properly acknowledged by a trustee for the respective trust and are in compliance with the Parcel Identification Number System. Bardella said the injunction does not change her office’s procedures since completing these requirements was all she ever asked.
In 2011, LotsofRealty.com had listed a property at North Main and West Chestnut streets in downtown Washington, which was owned by a trust with a main trustee in Moscow, Russia, for sale at auction on eBay. The property received bids, but the sale reportedly fell through when it was discovered there were more than $1.2 million in federal and state tax liens against the property, which Bardella has said the buyer would be liable for. The city has since condemned the building and is taking action to have it demolished.