Matthew Prensky
Matthew Prensky · January 17, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) condemned Santa Clara County for the outrageous, unconstitutional fines it issued to a winery owner who generously allowed his employee and the employee’s family to stay at his vineyard to avoid becoming homeless. 

As they were losing their housing in 2014, Marcelino Martinez went to his boss Michael Ballard to ask if he and his family could stay at Michael’s vineyard. Marcelino has been a valued employee and family friend of Michael’s for two decades, so Michael was happy to allow Marcelino to stay at Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards. As a result, Marcelino purchased a trailer and settled it into a secluded part of Michael’s 60-acre vineyard. 

For three years Marcelino, his wife, and their three children (the third of which was born while the family lived at the vineyard) were able to avoid living on the streets because of Michael’s generosity. However, in 2017, Santa Clara County officials deemed the Martinez family to be in violation of county law, which prohibits living in an RV, and fined Michael $250 a day. As fines mounted, county staff declined to help Michael acquire the proper permits. County officials refused to negotiate with Michael over his non-compliance and pushed him to evict the Martinez family, which he refused to do.  

Now, because of his act of kindness, Michael faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees. 

“My longtime vineyard manager asked me to help his family by allowing them to locate their trailer on our 60-acre vineyard property. They could not find affordable housing anywhere else. We didn’t hesitate to help,” Michael said. “Then, after years of their enjoyment of assisted, cost-free housing, Santa Clara County, unprovoked, came on our property demanding the trailer be removed. They did this knowing it would force a family onto the streets. In spite of this pressure, we have maintained a compassionate, good Samaritan position and refused to allow the county to harm this family.” 

The U.S. Constitution protects Americans from excessive fines like the ones Michael currently faces. The fines Santa Clara County imposed upon Michael are grossly disproportionate to the gravity of his offense. What Michael did kept a family off the streets during a historic affordable housing crisis in California. Santa Clara County is among the least affordable housing markets in the country. Every night thousands of Santa Clarans go to sleep on the streets, two-thirds of whom have no shelter, leaving them at risk. 

“The Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution requires government fines to be proportionate to the harm caused,” said Bill Maurer, IJ senior attorney and head of the firm’s fines and fees practice. “Here, there was no harm, as evidenced by the fact that such living arrangements are common in California and across the country. In fact, this supposed violation probably helped keep these folks from becoming homeless. The fine is not only unconstitutional; considering California’s housing crisis, it is entirely irrational.” 

IJ is the nation’s leader in litigating against fines and fees abuses. Whether it’s an Arizona city attempting to evict residents for living in RV homes, or a North Carolina city punishing a family for choosing to use their farm as an animal sanctuary for neglected and special-needs farm animals, IJ has sued dozens of local governments who’ve abused their power to fine Americans. Our legal victories include Timbs v. Indiana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s protection against excessive fines applies to state and local governments.

About the Institute for Justice 

Through strategic litigation, training, communication, activism, legislative outreach and research, the Institute for Justice advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society. IJ litigates to secure economic liberty, educational choice, private property rights, freedom of speech and other vital individual liberties, and to restore constitutional limits on the power of government.