Yesterday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that fining a Dunedin, Florida, homeowner nearly $30,000 for letting his grass get too long 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.
“Today’s decision will further embolden cities like Dunedin to impose crippling financial penalties against unsuspecting residents,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Ari Bargil, who argued the case on behalf of Jim 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.”
Explaining its logic, the court wrote: “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.’” (ellipsis in original opinion)
“If a $30,000 fine for not mowing your lawn isn’t excessive, what is?” asked IJ Attorney 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 May 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. While Jim was out of town, the man he paid to cut his lawn unexpectedly died. Jim’s lawn soon grew longer than the ten inches allowed by the city and the city immediately began fining Jim without notice, having classified him as a “repeat offender” because of a previous warning he received in 2015.
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.
Two days later Jim, with the help of the Institute for Justice, filed a lawsuit against the city claiming it violated his due process and Eighth Amendment rights.
“I’m astounded the court agreed the city could fine me $500 per day, without my knowledge, and then try to take my house—all to settle a bill for tall grass,” said Ficken. “The court’s ruling is outrageous. If this can happen to me it can happen to anyone. That just can’t be right, and I’m looking forward to continuing my fight.”