May 8, 2019

Jim Ficken is a 69-year-old retiree living in a modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Dunedin, Florida. It’s about half an hour northwest of Tampa and Saint Petersburg. Jim, who retired from producing radio programs, lives on a modest fixed income.

The story starts in 2014, when Jim’s elderly mother got sick and he began making regular trips to her condo in South Carolina to help care for her. During one of those trips, in May 2015, Jim forgot to mow his grass, which grew longer than the 10 inches permitted in Dunedin’s municipal code. A code officer noticed, and Jim promptly cut the grass. Jim was never fined for the offense.

But, three years later, that encounter would come to haunt Jim. By 2018, his mom had passed away. On May 19, he left Dunedin to work on fixing up her old condo for sale. He hired a friend to cut the grass while he was out, but shortly after Jim had left, his friend passed away unexpectedly. With no one mowing the lawn, the grass did what grass in Florida does: it grew.

On July 5, a code officer noticed the grass. And because Jim had already been found to have allowed his grass to grow too tall three years earlier, the officer invoked Dunedin’s repeat-offender policy, and the city began to assess fines immediately.

When Jim got back two weeks later, on July 19, he had no idea he was incurring $500 in fines each day. He didn’t get a letter or a phone call from the city. But he could see the grass was too long, and he cut almost all of it a few days later. Unfortunately, his old mower malfunctioned in the process, and he didn’t cut it perfectly.

Another month passed. Without knowing about the fine, and with a broken mower, Jim hadn’t mowed. Other cities might have just mowed the lawn and billed him. But Dunedin didn’t, and the fines kept adding up.

Finally, around August 20, the officer arrived to look at the grass, and—because Jim happened to be standing outside at just the right moment—hinted at what was happening. He told Jim there would be a “big bill from the city.” Jim responded the way any decent citizen would: he immediately went out, bought a brand-new lawnmower and cut the grass.

On August 22, the officer returned and confirmed the grass was short enough. Still, he told Jim there was going to be a hearing about the violation two weeks later, on September 4. With no idea he was facing a $23,500 fine, Jim asked to reschedule the hearing because he had already purchased a plane ticket to return to South Carolina to address additional issues related to his mother’s estate. The city refused. Jim returned to South Carolina, missed the hearing and figured that, at most, he would have to eat a few hundred dollars in fines. He mistakenly believed that his fine would be less than the cost of rebooking his flight.

At the hearing, however, the city imposed the maximum $500 per day fine for all 47 days—$23,500. The city also alleged an ongoing violation during the second trip; that violation was later deemed to have lasted 10 more days. With costs on top, the total fine came to $28,976.

Jim was shocked. Like most people, he doesn’t have $29,000 to spare. So, he exercised his right to ask the city to reconsider. He recognized that he should pay a fine—but something fair. After all, the city was supposed to consider “the gravity of the violation” and “actions taken by the violator to correct the violation.” But the city refused.

Now the lawn police are coming for the house. On May 7, 2019, the city voted to foreclose on Jim’s property. That’s right: Jim Ficken could lose his home because the grass grew too long.

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