Local Government

Mow Your Yard or Go to Jail

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Do they execute people with broken windows?
WVLT

One of the few positive things to be said about city code enforcement officers is that they rarely shoot dogs during the performance of their duties and they don't carry flash-bang grenades. Cities claim they serve public safety by enforcing a million property regulations, but really they often end up harassing poor people with constant demands and threats of fines for poorly maintained homes and yards. In my time, I've encountered any number of leaders of relatively poor cities who were certain that they could draw in big development projects and turn things around if only people's homes looked better, while in the meantime the city streets and infrastructure crumbled into dust. Residents, annoyed by the guy down the street with the car on blocks in front of his house, often support code enforcement anyway.

During one dry summer, I knew of a desert city out in California threatening code enforcement fines for properties that didn't maintain yards because they created fire risks. Then they had a wildfire threatening a neighborhood that originated from exactly the kind of unmaintained property the city worried about. Except it turned out the dangerous property was owned by the city itself.

Code enforcement harassment took a strange turn out in Lenoir City, Tennessee (population: 8,800. Median household income: $28,000). A mother in the small town, Karen Holloway, was sent to jail after being cited for failing to maintain her lawn. As reported by WVLT in Knoxville, Tennessee:

Holloway, who has two kids still at home, says she'll be the first to admit this yard needed some attention. But she feels the city has gone too far by imposing jail time.

"[The bushes and trees] were overgrown. But that's certainly not a criminal offense," she said.

She was shocked at a hearing last week, when Judge Terry Vann handed down a five-day jail sentence.

"It's not right," she said. "Why would you put me in jail with child molesters, and people who've done real crimes, because I haven't maintained my yard."

She says she was never read her rights nor told she could have a lawyer present.

The judge eventually reduced her sentence to six hours but refused her request for community service. According to Holloway, Vann said he knew this wasn't a criminal case but sentenced her to jail anyway. And he set a follow-up hearing for November, where she could face even more penalties if he's not happy with her yard.

WVLT was unable to reach either the judge or the town's chief of police to get any answers. Out of curiosity, I looked up Lenoir City's municipal code (pdf) online. It's almost 300 pages, but I got lucky scrolling through and found the property maintenance regulations beginning on page 135. Here's what it describes as the penalty for having an overgrown or trashed yard:

The penalty for violating this section shall be a fine up to and including fifty dollars ($50.00) and costs for each offense and/or the judge of the municipal court may punish a violation in the same manner as prescribed by any other city ordinance (Tennessee Code Annotated, § 6-54-306). Each day during which a violation continues to exist following the initial citation shall be considered a separate offense.

Well, that's an easily abusable citation system, isn't it? (And likely extremely common.) The basic "penalty clause" of the municipal code declares that violations are civil offenses unless stated otherwise, with maximum fines of $500 and "hard labor" should the offender be unable to pay. It doesn't seem to authorize any sort of jail time for these violations, but admittedly, I'm not a lawyer and there may be some sort of loophole I'm missing.

(Hat tip to Felix Finch)

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  1. there may be some sort of loophole I’m missing

    It’s the implicit FYTW loophole.

    1. ^This. It is present in all government documents.

  2. Code enforcement officers are the bottom of the barrel. They might be lower than parking meter readers. The guy in Wichita who was the BTK killer was a career code enforcement officer and by all accounts excelled at the sort of petty tyrannies required for the job. Tells you all you need to know about what it takes to be one.

    1. My niece and her husband lived on a corner lot across the street from a grade school. On snowy days they would shovel out the sidewalks and go to work. The snow would drift back in during the day and the code guy would come by right before school got out and write them a citation for not having the sidewalks clear.

      They called the city and explained that the sidewalk was clear when they left for work (and it was obvious that it had been shoveled) but were told they had to pay anyway.

      After this happened several times they met with the code guy and asked what they were supposed to do. He told them to either hire someone to come during the day and make sure the sidewalks stayed clear or come home themselves at lunch and shovel it again because it had to be clear when the kiddies got out of school.

      Safety for the Children!

      They sold the place and moved.

  3. He (the Judge) looks like Santa’s angry younger brother.

    1. He’s the guy who stuffs naughty children in his sack.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus

  4. The right to keep your yard as a fire hazard, libertarianism as freedom for aggression.

    In many cases though I’m sure the real motivation is to keep out vibrants. Same thing with giving a lot of speeding tickets, the government knows who is most likely to violate the laws.

    I must give you credit, though, for admitting that residents often support this kind of thing.

    1. Those damn vibrants! We’ve got to run them out of town!

      1. Are they vibrant workers? Oh, he said fire hazard, maybe they are fire vibrants.

      2. Well, we can’t call them “homos” any more. Remember when kids used to dress up as “homos” for Halloween? Now it’s politically incorrect.

        So “vibrants” it is. Or, I suppose they could be “vacancies”. Either way…

        1. As I recall, that was “hobos”.

    2. That’s = awesome

      A+

    3. If there is a real fire hazard or if you are breeding vermin or creating some sort of attractive nuisance, that’s one thing (and certainly not a criminal matter). Most of it seems to be about aesthetics and maintaining property values, which is bullshit.

      Your property value might be damaged if your neighbors house is a dump. But your neighbor might also be damaged if you improve your property and property values in the neighborhood (and therefore taxes) go up.

      1. I think Libertarians dislike of zoning and such is one of their more naive positions. Libertarians assume everyone is reasonable and that no one would ever be an asshole and do shit that lowers the quality of life and property values of people around them. Live in a place that has no ordinances like this and inevitably a few white trash assholes will ruin the neighborhood.

        That said, you don’t arrest people for this shit. The city just mows the lawn and bills the property owner and if he doesn’t pay slaps a lien on the property.

        1. “Yes, ma’am, it DOES cost us $4,000 to mow a lawn. No you can’t dispute the payment. Can’t afford it? That’s okay, I know a nice guy over at Schlumpf and Schlumpfel who’ll give you twice that for the property itself…and twice that for me.”

        2. Live in a place that has no ordinances like this and inevitably a few white trash assholes will ruin the neighborhood.

          Citation: John’s ass.

          1. Yeah, Houston has become a real cesspool absent all those zoning codes.

        3. Libertarians assume everyone is reasonable and that no one would ever be an asshole and do shit that lowers the quality of life and property values of people around them.

          No one assumes that except the straw man in your head.

          I think the libertarian position would be that if some asshole does do shit that lowers the quality of life and property values of the people around them, that that is indeed harm that could be addressed in court.

          I say “could” because some people may not care.

        4. What is the “libertarian” position of restrictive covenants?

          1. You could always type “restrictive covenants” in the search bar in the upper right hand corner and read Reason’s article(s) on them yourself.

            1. I couldn’t find an article on it. I found some mentioning it, but not one on the subject. Evidently, some violations of liberty are more important than others.

              1. What can I tell you? It seems every article in the print mag isn’t online.

                1. They did run an article which Denied The Holocaust in 1976.

                  1. They did run an article which Denied The Holocaust in 1976.

                    Put up or shut up, troll.

                    1. https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Reason_(magazine)#History

                    2. The wikipedia article (once the link is repaired) says that they ran an interview with someone who denied the “holocaust”. This is a far different thing than taking that as an editorial position.

              2. There’s also this thing called Google.

                But, in a nutshell – did you sign on to the covenant freely? Then live by it.

                But no retro-active forcible inclusion of people who didn’t sign on.

          2. Ask a vibrant.

  5. But that’s certainly not a criminal offense,” she said.

    Guess again.

    1. It doesn’t seem to authorize any sort of jail time for these violations

      No need for specific authorization. As noted above, the “Fuck You, That’s Why” clause is inherent in all regulation and law.

      Off with her head!

      1. Any violation of any directive sets you on the road to jail. Period, full stop.

        Take this one:

        The ordnance calls, I’m sure for a fine.

        Don’t pay the fine, what happens?

        Not nothing. No, it escalates from failure to mow your yard to failure to pay the fine.

        What’s the only alternative for enforcing anything once you refuse to pay the fine?

        Jail.

        In the Total State, you have two choices:

        Do what you’re told, or go to jail.

        1. Almost, but not quite.

          Even the slightest infraction could result in an arrest warrant. Failure to appear, failure to pay a fine, whatever.

          At that point if some police officer find out they will initiate force to take you to jail. What happens if you defend yourself from this aggression? You will be beaten or killed.

          Your choices are obey or die.

          1. So, yeah, what I said.

          2. Doesn’t New Hampshire say something relevant about this?

        2. I’d say that that violation of any directive sets you on a path to death.

          Ultimately, the state is willing to kill you ‘pour encourager les outres’.

          That’s why I find most of these laws abhorrent – they will justify killing you for not mowing your lawn.

    2. Well I mean she has to be made a example of disobeying the almighty gubment. Or else everyone would do it.. think ofthe horror, all that green.

  6. Lenoir City is where my National Guard unit drilled.

    Nice people, overall. But they were all good ol’ boys who’d gone to high school together, whereas I was a nerdy city boy. Not the best fit, to say the least.

    They made me the loader on the commander’s tank?even though I couldn’t load the gun worth a tinker’s damn (little tiny pipe cleaner arms)?because I was the only one in the company who could figure out the new SINGCGARS radios.

  7. A mother in the small town, Karen Holloway, was sent to jail after being cited for failing to maintain her lawn.

    “Failure to obey” is the cardinal sin that clears the way for the state to inflict violence on its subjects.

    Any law, regulation, rule, ordinance, or even arbitrary directive from the Total State is a call for the state to inflict violence on its subjects.

    Every single time anyone demands that a law, regulation, rule, or ordinance be passed, they need to be asked “You believe that someone who does/doesn’t do X should be arrested and imprisoned? That they should be subject to having their door kicked down, forced into handcuffs, and jailed? If you don’t believe that, then why are you demanding that it be done?”

    1. And what do you do when their reaction is to jump up and down in glee crying “yes!” to your parrade of horribles?

      1. Why, put their name on The List.

        When the revolution comes, you don’t want to be on The List.

  8. *Holloway, who has two kids still at home, *

    The wording implies that the children are old enough to push a mower or a broom. Why aren’t they?

    Love the photo in front of this hambeast’s house with all the leaves and detritus all over the place. I guess she spent the 60 bucks earmarked for a leaf blower/vac combo at Mickey D’s instead.

    1. Leaves and branches on the lawn in the fall?!?!?! Get the fuck outta here! Who ever heard of such a thing?

    2. So you’ve just completely given up even trying to make a point, huh tulpa?

      1. Not Tulpa. “He has a cute daughter. Tulpa has never known the intimate touch of another human being.

        1. That kid’s adorable.

  9. Any law, regulation, rule, ordinance, or even arbitrary directive from the Total State is a call for the state to inflict violence on its subjects.

    If you let people get away with not mowing their lawns (or littering, or jaywalking), it’s exactly the same as legalizing forcible sodomy or murder.

  10. What is the “libertarian” position of restrictive covenants?

    Voluntarily entering into contractual agreements does not conflict with the principle of self-ownership, does it?

  11. You you-ed your comment.

    If I don’t, who will?

  12. During one dry summer, I knew of a desert city out in California threatening code enforcement fines for properties that didn’t maintain yards because they created fire risks. Then they had a wildfire threatening a neighborhood that originated from exactly the kind of unmaintained property the city worried about. Except it turned out the dangerous property was owned by the city itself.

    Thus, er, proving that their code enforcement issue here was actually legitimate even on libertarian grounds?

    The delicious irony of the city being a slacker and causing the fire doesn’t change the fact that that fire demonstrates that they were right and that such lack of maintenance – in that specific context – endangered the life and property of others.

    1. No; there was no violation until the fire; at this time, the way the property was maintained created responsibility for the tort. Until there is damage, there is no tort.

  13. I think this lady has a good case for false imprisonment or the judge acting under the color of law. I hope she contacts the Institute for Justice.

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