use tax requirements
State officials frown upon efforts to circumvent use tax requirements, as an airplane dealer in Mississippi recently learned.
Most states assess either a sales tax or a use tax of personal property. The use tax applies when no sales tax has previously been paid.
Two men formed a partnership in Tate County, Mississippi, called Johnny Reb, ostensibly to buy and sell airplanes. Johnny Reb paid no tax on the planes it purchased. Therefore Johnny Reb either had to sell the planes – and collect Mississippi’s 3% sales tax – or pay an identical amount in use tax if it used the planes for any other purpose.
According to Mississippi officials, Johnny Reb did neither. Instead, a state audit revealed the partners were using planes for personal use and, in effect, running a charter air service. Indeed, Johnny Reb’s tax returns and website identified it as a “charter” or “airplane leasing” business, not a dealership. Based on this information, the Mississippi Department of Revenue assessed Johnny Reb for unpaid use taxes (plus interest) of more than $160,000.
Johnny Reb appealed the department’s assessment to the Tate County Chancery Court. The Chancery Court is a trial court that handles certain administrative cases. The chancery judge reversed the department’s decision. He re-examined the facts of the case, including new information presented by Johnny Reb, and determined the company really was a dealership exempt from use tax. And even though there was evidence Johnny Reb used its planes to transport passengers, that was not the company’s “principal business” and it never made a profit from providing charter service.
But in a decision issued on Oct. 14 of this year, the Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed the chancery judge and reinstated the department’s original use-tax assessment. The appeals court said the chancery judge exceeded his authority in questioning the department’s determination of the facts. A chancery court may not reverse a tax decision because he personally disagrees with it; rather, he must find there was no “substantial evidence” supporting it. That was not the case here.
Moreover, the Court of Appeals said the use tax applies to Johnny Reb regardless of its “principal business” or whether it made a profit on charters. The department agreed Johnny Reb was primarily in business to sell planes. The problem was that it wasn’t doing that. It was using the planes, which meant it had to pay a use tax.
S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog Bonham’s Cases.
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