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Two Families Battle Outrageous Fines and Fees in Wisconsin

“Life on the farm” conjures images of wide-open spaces, grazing animals, and lemonade on the front porch. That is, unless you’re in the Town of Eagle, Wisconsin, where “life on the farm” means endless property inspections and abusive code enforcement.

The Town of Eagle, a small municipality where most of the 3,500 residents live on multi-acre tracts of land, has weaponized its code enforcement to punish local residents and to produce a profit. With the help of the Municipal Law & Litigation Group—a private law firm that is paid by the hour to prosecute code violations—the town uses its codes to retaliate against citizens who speak out against town officials, to fine citizens tens of thousands of dollars for minor violations, and to pass the attorneys’ fees on to unwitting citizens. The law firm has even threatened citizens with jailtime if they can’t pay up. The town subverts basic constitutional rights, devastating the residents unfortunate enough to be caught in the town’s crosshairs.

But the law is clear: governments may not infect their enforcement systems with perverse financial incentives. Prosecutors must serve the interests of justice, not the interests of their pocketbooks. Nor may towns retaliate against their citizens for engaging in constitutionally protected activity, such as criticizing local government. If a code is worth enforcing, it must be enforced uniformly, without bias, and to protect public health and safety. And governments may only impose fines for a code violation that are reasonable and proportionate to the violation.

The town’s officials have been skirting these constitutional requirements for far too long, but they can’t evade the law any longer. The Institute for Justice teamed up with Erica and Zach Mallory, and Annalyse and Joseph Victor, and filed challenges in Wisconsin state court to hold the town, town board and the Municipal Law & Litigation Group accountable for their unconstitutional code enforcement practices.

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