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Federal Court Upholds $30,000 Fines for Tall Grass

TAMPA, Fla.—In a blow to property rights, on Monday a federal judge upheld fines against Jim Ficken, a Dunedin property owner who was assessed $30,000 in fines and threatened with foreclosure for the offense of tall grass. Jim, who is represented by the Institute for Justice (“IJ”), plans to appeal the district court’s decision. If the decision remains intact, it will mean that local governments can impose maximum fines for petty code violations without first providing notice that the fines are accruing.

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The fines at issue stem from a two-month period in the summer of 2018, while Jim was in South Carolina tending to his late mother’s estate.

“I was out of town when code enforcement officials first noticed my grass was too tall,” Ficken said. “They came back almost every day to record the violation, but never notified me that I was on the hook for fines. By the time I found out, I owed them tens of thousands of dollars. Then, they refused to reduce the fines and voted to authorize the foreclosure of my home. I am disappointed that the court sided with Dunedin, but what happened to me is wrong, and I will continue to fight.”

“The city’s behavior toward Jim is outrageous,” said IJ Attorney Ari Bargil. “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 district court concluded that the city was not required to provide advanced notice that Jim was subject to fines. Instead, the court determined that the city afforded Jim constitutionally compliant notice because it eventually told him—after he had already cut the grass—that his property had been under investigation the entire time. Having accepted that the notice provided was sufficient, the district court further concluded that fines at issue—$500 per day for tall grass—were not unconstitutional.

“The Constitution protects against fines that are excessive or ‘grossly disproportional’ to an offense,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “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.”

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the National Law Firm for Liberty. In addition to its litigation in Dunedin, IJ is challenging excessive fines elsewhere in Florida, as well as in Indiana, Georgia, Wisconsin and New York City.

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