$30,000 fine for long grass? Federal court makes stunning decision

(Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash)
(Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash)

A federal appeals court has decided that a town’s $30,000 fine against a homeowner who let his grass get long is just fine.

But the case against Jim Ficken, whose penalties were announced by the town of Dunedin, Florida, is continuing, with a request for the full court to hear the arguments.

It was the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the huge fine does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on levying excessive fines.

“In doing so, the court affirmed a lower court ruling against Jim Ficken, who—along with the help of the Institute for Justice—challenged Dunedin’s outrageous policy of charging homeowners astronomical compounding fines for property maintenance code violations,” the Institute announced.

“Today’s decision will further embolden cities like Dunedin to impose crippling financial penalties against unsuspecting residents,” explained IJ lawyer Ari Bargil, who argued the case on behalf of Ficken.

“The court’s ruling accepted the argument that the Constitution provides no protection from the imposition of limitless fines, assessed without notice, that can reach thousands, if not millions of dollars—even for trivial things like tall grass. It should be clear that fining a man into foreclosure for letting his grass get too long is disproportionate to that offense. We’re hopeful that the full appeals court will see this case for what it is and throw out this decision.”

The court ruling claimed, “Florida law permits a $500-per-day fine for repeat violations of municipal ordinances, see Fla. Stat. § 162.09(2)(a), so Ficken’s fine is ‘almost certainly . . . not excessive.’”

“If a $30,000 fine for not mowing your lawn isn’t excessive, what is?” asked IJ lawyer Andrew Ward. “A city or state cannot pass an unconstitutional law, and argue that because it is the law, it’s constitutional.”

The case started in 2018 when Jim Ficken left his home in Dunedin, a Tampa suburb, to go to South Carolina to work on settling his late mother’s affairs.

He had paid a man to cut his lawn, but that man died unexpectedly and Ficker didn’t know.

He got back and was warned by city officials about being a “repeat offender”

Jim finally found out he was being fined by sheer happenstance, when a code inspector making near-daily visits to track his fines told him he would be getting “a big bill.” Jim then immediately cut the grass, figuring he would be fined no more than a few hundred dollars. Eventually, the city sent Jim a bill for nearly $29,000. When Jim protested that he didn’t have the savings to pay the fine, the city gave him 15 days to pay. Otherwise the city was going to get its money another way: by foreclosing on his home. And on May 7, that’s just what the city voted to do.

Ficker then filed a lawsuit against the city for violating his due process and Eighth Amendment rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in another case, previously has ruled that such fines are unconstitutional.

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