J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 5, 2024

Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ)—a national nonprofit law firm with a track record of fighting excessive fines and fees—announced that it will represent Michael and Kellie Ballard, owners of the Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards, a historic winery in Santa Clara County, California. The Ballards are facing more than one hundred thousand dollars in fines for allowing a long-time employee to live in a well-maintained trailer on the winery property. The fines, imposed by a county official and under a county zoning code prohibiting trailer habitation, harshly penalize the Ballards for violating an irrational law.

“In the midst of a housing affordability crisis, it is beyond belief that a county would levy such outrageously high fines against a family trying to help out one of their employees,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “The winery’s charity is a classic example of a private solution to a societal problem that should be applauded, not punished. In joining this fight, we are committed to defending the Ballards against these absurdly high fines and ensuring that justice prevails.”

Since 2013, the Ballards have provided safe, affordable housing for their vineyard manager, Marcelino Martinez, and his family at the vineyard. Living in an out of-the-way trailer on the 60-acre property, Martinez—who has worked for the vineyard for 20 years—along with his family have been integral to the winery’s operations. The trailer, which is not visible from the highway or neighboring properties, has posed no harm to anyone.

The situation escalated in 2017 when an anonymous complaint led to a county inspection and subsequent enforcement actions. The County put the Ballards to a horrible choice: Either kick the Martinez family out of their home or be fined daily. Rejecting the “inhuman” choice of forcing the Martinez family onto the street when they already had a home, the Ballards have also spent years and tens of thousands of dollars in permitting costs for a new, compliant home for the Martinez family while the fines have continued to accrue each day, reaching a staggering $120,000. The county’s insistence on these fines and their insensitivity to the consequences of their enforcement is not only punitive but also counterproductive.

The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading advocate against unconstitutional fines. IJ has a long history of challenging excessive penalties because fines must be commensurate with the harm caused by the violation.  And IJ is challenging fines imposed by administrative officials, rather than judges, because the government has to prove its case in a real court in order to impose massive fines against small businesses and individuals. Here, the Ballards are not harming anyone— instead, they are helping the Martinezes and keeping a family from joining the thousands of unhoused people straining the resources of California governments—but were fined by a county official, not the independent judge the constitution promises.

“The county’s actions are an attack on the generosity and community spirit that small businesses like ours bring to the area,” said winery owner Michael Ballard. “We are grateful to have the Institute for Justice by our side as we fight against these callus actions and unjust fines.”

By taking on this case, IJ aims to set a precedent that will protect not only the Ballards but also other property owners from unjust and excessive penalties. This case exemplifies how private solutions can address pressing issues like housing affordability, particularly in regions with exorbitant housing costs.

For more information about this case and the Institute for Justice’s ongoing efforts to combat excessive fines and defend property rights, visit www.ij.org.