A federal court has affirmed a Florida city’s decision to fine a homeowner $30,000 for uncut grass, and now the Foundation for Economic Education explains an appeal is likely.
The Institute for Justice is defending Jim Ficken against the decision by officials in Dunedin to impose the draconian fine.
FEE explained, “The defendant, Jim Ficken, was fined $500 a day over code violations on his Dunedin home. Ficken’s first ‘violation’ came when he left Florida to care for his dying mother in South Carolina. Following the death of his mother, Ficken arranged to have a man cut his lawn, but the man died while Ficken was in South Carolina attending to his mother’s estate.”
And Ficken didn’t know.
“Ficken says he had no idea he was racking up the fines until he returned home from South Carolina,” the FEE report said. “A city inspector walked past his house and notified him he’d soon be receiving a ‘big bill from the city,’ at which point he purchased a lawnmower and cut his grass.”
The IJ argued the Constitution protects homeowners from fines that are “excessive” or “grossly disproportional” to an office.
IJ lawyer Andrew Ward said, “If $30,000 for tall grass in Florida is not excessive, it is hard to imagine what is. Yesterday’s ruling is wrong on the law, and we will be appealing.”
He said, “This ruling emboldens code enforcement departments across the state to impose crippling financial penalties and it empowers them to do so without first notifying a property owner that they are potentially going to be fined.”
The grass got long during a two-month period in 2018 when Ficken was dealing with the aftermath of his mother’s death.
“While Jim was out of town, the man he had hired to tend to his lawn passed away unexpectedly and the grass was left to grow unabated. Jim eventually cut the grass himself after he returned home, but by then it was already too late. Dunedin had been fining Jim $500 per day for months, starting when he was out of the state,” the institute explained.
“Dunedin made regular visits to Jim’s property to check for noncompliance, but never once tried to tell Jim that he was under investigation or that he was racking up violations,” Ward said. “But the government is supposed to provide reasonable notice. The city’s treatment of Jim violated his right to due process, and we look forward to showing just that in court.”
When the homeowner told city officials he did not have $30,000 to pay the fines, the city foreclosed on the home.
“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 constitutions.”
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