The Institute for Justice is helping a Florida resident fight what he calls an excessive fine for having grass longer than the city of Dunedin wants.
There was a reason for the long grass.
Jim Ficken left his home early in May to attend to the sale of his late mother’s residence in South Carolina, IJ explained. The man he had hired to cut the lawn while he was away died unexpectedly, and apparently he didn’t notify Ficken that he was dead.
In July, a code-enforcement official started imposing fines of $500 a day on Ficken for overgrown grass.
He returned in late July and mowed his lawn, only to be told by an inspector to expect a “big bill from the city.”
It totaled $29,933.59, but since then, interest has been added daily. And now the city has begun foreclosure proceedings.
See IJ’s explanation:
“Losing your home because you inadvertently let your grass get too long is the very definition of an excessive fine,” said Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. “No one should face crippling fines, let alone foreclosure, for trivial code violations. Dunedin’s Code Enforcement Board operates like a nightmarish homeowners association, but as a public board, it cannot rule with an iron fist. Rather, it must abide by state laws, as well as the state and federal constitution.”
Bargil said Ficken asked the city if it would reconsider and give him a fair fine or a new hearing, but it rejected him.
“Now they are trying to take his home. But the amount of Jim’s fine is wildly out of proportion to the offense of having long grass,” the attorney said. “The Institute for Justice will defend Jim’s constitutional right to be free from this excessive fine so that he can keep his home.”
Ficken, 69, is suing the city to end what IJ describes as an abusive practice.
The lawsuit in Pinellas County Court contends the fines are excessive under the excessive fines clauses of the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.
It was only months ago that IJ won a unanimous decision in the U.S. Supreme Court affirming bans on excessive fines.
“This case is bigger than just Jim. In 2007, the entire amount of fines that Dunedin imposed for code violations was $34,000 – only a little more than the amount the city is now demanding for Jim’s lawn alone. A decade later, in 2017, the city was raking in 20 times as much, about $700,000. In fiscal year 2018, it collected almost $1.3 million in total fines,” IJ explained.
“The city’s code enforcement attorney – the one who refused to negotiate with Jim – calls the system a ‘well oiled machine.’ In 2018 alone, the city authorized foreclosure on 18 homes. In another case, the city authorized foreclosure to collect $250,” IJ said.
IJ Attorney Andrew Ward said that all over the country, citizens are being fined hundreds or thousands of dollars for minor violations and then threatened with the loss of their property or other serious consequences if they can’t pay up.”
“The Founders knew that the government would always be tempted to levy outrageous penalties,” he said. “It is past time for courts to give meaning to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines.”