Despite his latest setback in federal court, a Dunedin man vows to keep fighting a nearly $30,000 fine imposed by the city for not mowing his grass.
“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,” homeowner Jim Ficken said in a statement released by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that primarily handles civil liberties cases, which represents 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.”
Ficken was referring to a ruling issued last week by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel of the appellate judges rejected Ficken’s claim that a $29,000 fine for allowing his grass to grow above 10 inches, as spelled out in a city ordinance, is not considered excessive punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Institute for Justice Attorney Ari Bargil said he and his client now seek to persuade the entire 11th Circuit that the city’s “outrageous” policy is wrong and his fine must be overturned.
The court’s decision,” Bargil said in a statement, “will further embolden cities like Dunedin to impose crippling financial penalties against unsuspecting residents.”
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“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.”
The court declared that Florida law permits a $500 a day fine for repeat violations of city ordinances. Accordingly, the fine levied against Ficken is “almost certainly . . . not excessive.” (ellipsis in original opinion)
Andrew Ward, another Institute for Justice lawyer, added, “If a $30,000 fine for not mowing your lawn isn’t excessive, what is? A city or state cannot pass an unconstitutional law, and argue that because it is the law, it’s constitutional.”
Ficken’s tussle with the city began in May 2018.
Ficken left Dunedin for South Carolina to settle his late mother’s estate, according to the Institute for Justice.
He paid someone to cut his lawn while he was out of town. Yet the landscaper died unexpectedly.
In Ficken’s continued absence, his lawn sprang higher than the 10-inch ceiling permitted by the city. City officials began fining Ficken without informing him. They did so after declaring him a “repeat offender” because of a previous warning issued in 2015.
At one point before he discovered the amount, Ficken attempted to cut his yard, but his mower broke down.
Eventually, the Institute for Justice reported, Ficken learned about the escalating fine when he ran into a code inspector who was regularly checking on his home. The inspector informed Ficken that he was facing “a big bill.”
Ficken immediately cut his grass, thinking the fine would not top a few hundred dollars. And his yard was found to be in compliance with the city’s ordinance.
Still, he was handed a bill for $29,834. The city eventually gave him 15 days to pay. If he didn’t pay up, the city vowed to foreclose on his home – and did so. The city voted to do that in May 2019.
At that point, he connected with the Institute for Justice, maintaining that the city violated his due process and Eighth Amendment rights.
It’s unclear when the 11th Circuit will rehear the case.
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