It all started innocently enough. Last summer, Jim Ficken left his modest home in Dunedin, Florida, for Columbia, South Carolina, to tend to his late mother’s estate. He asked a friend and local handyman to keep an eye on his lawn, lest it grow too long in his absence. After Jim left, sadly, his friend died unexpectedly. And, left unattended, Jim’s grass did what grass in Florida does during the summer: It grew.
The city’s code enforcement department noticed. Labeling Jim a “repeat violator” because he’d once let his grass grow too long some four years earlier, the city began fining Jim immediately, and without warning, for allowing his grass to grow more than ten inches high. The fine for this seemingly innocuous transgression? Five hundred dollars per day. That’s the same amount as the fine for barreling through a school zone at 50 mph.
The fines kept accruing the entire time Jim was away—totaling about $7,000 by the time he returned home. But because the city issued no notice, Jim still had no idea he was being fined. And, like his grass, the fines continued growing.
Only after a happenstance encounter with a code enforcement officer—who cryptically warned Jim that he was “going to get a big bill from the city”—did Jim finally learn that he was being fined. At that point, he immediately did what any responsible homeowner would do: He cut the grass.
It was too late. The city’s $500 daily fines had been running for weeks, and Jim now owed roughly $24,000. The city then tacked on an additional fine of $5,000 for another ten days of alleged noncompliance—even though these were days after Jim had mowed. Like most people, Jim doesn’t have $30,000 hiding in his couch cushions to pay off the fines. And now the city is threatening to foreclose on the property to collect what Jim owes.
With six active cases across the nation, including three class action suits, IJ is exposing and ending schemes in which cities use abusive code enforcement and outrageous fines to fill their coffers at the expense of innocent residents. Jim’s case is IJ’s latest such effort and builds directly on our recent U.S. Supreme Court victory in Timbs v. Indiana. In Timbs, the Court explicitly applied the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause to state and local governments. Using this new legal ammunition, IJ and Jim have teamed up to protect the property rights of all Floridians and to send a clear message to other cities that abusive code enforcement is not only wrong—it’s unconstitutional.
Ari Bargil is an IJ attorney.