Eighth Amendment

Florida City Tries To Steal an Elderly Man's House Over Uncut Grass

Institute for Justice sues Dunedin, Fla., over the $29,000 in fines imposed without due process over Jim Ficken's unmowed lawn.

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The city of Dunedin, Florida, wants to foreclose on a private home because the owner, Jim Ficken, owes the city over $29,000 in fines. The crime for which he is threatened with home loss? Having his lawn grass be too tall (over 10 inches) for a period of eight weeks last summer. The city fined him $500 per day of violation, with no warning.

Ficken was out of town at the time, settling his mother's estate. Ficken hired a handyman to deal with his lawn while he tended to his dying mother and then to her estate, but in a cruel twist, the handyman also died during the Fickens' ordeal, leaving the lawn uncut.

Ficken is 69 years old and lives on a fixed income. He was unaware that he was racking up the daily fines, but cut his grass within two days of finally being informed by a city code inspector that there was a problem. In a sane world, Ficken's explanation for neglecting his lawn and the fact that he remedied the problem as soon as he learned of it, would seemingly resolve the issue. No harm, no fine.

But the Dunedin government is apparently not sane. Because Ficken was also cited for overly tall grass in 2015, the city—unbeknownst to Ficken—classified him as a "repeat violator." This classification doubled his daily fine from $250 to $500 and relieved the Code Enforcement Board of providing him notice. Because Ficken cannot afford the fines he didn't know he was accumulating, the city of Dunedin insists that it can now take his home to pay off his debt.

With the help of the Institute for Justice, Ficken is suing to prevent the city from stealing his house. Earlier this year in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court showed a willingness to give teeth to the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines, even when not involving direct federal action.

Ficken and the Institute for Justice hope the Florida Circuit Court for the 6th Judicial District will agree that the city's practice of imposing such fines with such consequences, "without providing them with notice before applying such classification…or advising them of the consequences of such a classification…violates the Due Process Clauses of both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions."

"The City's imposition of fines against Jim, without providing Jim notice that fines were being imposed on an ongoing basis, amounted to a violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution," the suit insists.

There is no cap on the amount in fines the city can levy for such petty violations, which cause no harm to anyone. That, the suit argues, also violates "the Excessive Fines Clauses of both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions." Taking someone's house for having overly tall grass for a few weeks seems, on its face, excessive and unreasonable.

The suit points out that "municipal salaries and expenses are paid with revenue collected from fines," giving officials motive to act unreasonably in such cases as grass taller than legally permitted. From 2007-2017, Dunedin's take from code enforcement fines increased nearly twentyfold, from $34,000 to $703,000.

"The City had the authority to mow Jim's grass and send him a reasonable bill," the filing points out. "Upon information and belief, the City did not do so because it prioritizes revenue over code compliance."

The city anticipates in its own budget that 2019 fine revenue will rise 81 percent from 2018, so they seem on a deliberate warpath on such petty issues. Remedying code violations does the city no good; fining for them keeps them in business (that is, the business of stealing homes over tall grass).

The suit asks the court to enjoin the city from pursuing the home foreclosure or squeezing the fine money out of Ficken in recognition that the procedures and fines violate the Due Process Clause and the Eighth Amendment. The suit also seeks a nominal dollar amount and reasonable attorneys and court fees.

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  1. But the Dunedin government is apparently not sane.

    The righteous bureaucrat will brook no excuse, especially when his budget is on the line.

    1. Despicable.

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    3. It’s okay everybody, both the exorbitant fees and applying the maximum penalty only applies to citizens. The rest of us are good, obviously, since she’s still the mayor. https://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/dunedin-mayor-fell-months-behind-in-city-boat-slip-fees/2289132?template=amp

      1. Funny thing is the article quotes the Mayor as saying “the city tries to work with their residents”. Yes, the above article shows how well they do that too! Folks, we are in clown world.

  2. These code enforcement officers and city council/board members need to be investigated financially. Their actions in this case are so irrational that they cannot possibly be motivated by anything other than animus or money. In both cases, there must be some sort of crime they’re committing in the process.

    1. No, they have good intentions, just like all good bureaucrats.

      1. They’re doing it “FOR THE CHILDREN!!!!!”

    2. This type of stuff is what happens when people confuse “responsibility” with “power”. No one in government should have “power.” just authority as granted by the people to run the government properly and protect the rights of the people.

      1. If only Sheriff Andy Taylor was there. He would have talked Goober into mowing the lawn for the feller, and then they’d have a hoedown.

        1. No hoes in Mayberry – – – – – –

  3. Holy cow, talk about a sympathetic plaintiff!

    This isn’t some case where “despite what we think of the guy’s behavior, we must defend his rights,” etc. etc.

    This is a case where we stand up and cheer for the plaintiff and boo for the municipality.

    1. I hope someone organizes a mob of Florida men to storm City Hall over this

      1. Florida Man needs no reason to storm city hall. Florida Man is probably already in jail for storming city hall.

        1. Having a legitimate reason is probably the critical reason this does not occur. Florida Man is both incapable of both collective action and any coherent program. Florida Men collectively are the opposite of a Leninist vanguard. Spurred only by temporary enthusiasm, unable to take direction, and without any sense of proportion, Florida Man is the essence of a pure libertarian being, the sort that actual Libertarian Party members are but a malformed degenerate shadow of.

          1. Maybe the FL men could be tricked into forming a mob? Start a rumor that local government lizard people are hiding a stash of Meth in one of the conference rooms?

    2. “There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. … What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.”

      1. Bypasses have to be built, you know.

    3. “Holy cow, talk about a sympathetic plaintiff!”

      Those guys at IJ want to win in the courtroom and the PR battle. And their rep is such that they got one win last year by the mere threat of action.
      Yep, they get some bucks from me.

  4. That reminds me to make another donation to I for J. They do good work.

    1. IJ’s my favorite by a mile.

      Everyone donate, and kick some bureaucratic kleptocracy ass!

  5. Torches and pitchforks – – – – – –

    1. Tar and feathers.

  6. AT LEAST I’M NOT IN DUNEDIN, FLORIDA

    /Sent from New Jersey

    1. New Jersey?
      Poor bastard.

    2. Haha, New Jersey!? You will be. That’s probably where everyone in Dunedin is originally from.

  7. The suit asks the court to enjoin the city from pursuing the home foreclosure or squeezing the fine money out of Ficken in recognition that the procedures and fines violate the Due Process Clause and the Eighth Amendment. The suit also seeks a nominal dollar amount and reasonable attorneys and court fees.

    Let us hope at least one of the lawyers is a cannibal and charges in pounds of flesh, because I know some people who deserve to lose some body parts over this sort of thing.

  8. >>>But the Dunedin government is apparently not sane.

    several other collections of people *are* sane? fining people over grass length is crossing the Rubicon.

  9. Did they actually measure the height of the grass? Were the measurements taken by a licensed engineer? Was the ruler properly calibrated? Did they have a warrant?

    1. These are all questions the answers to which we do not have. It’s really not too difficult to understand the age-old maxim, “Power Corrupts.” These little minded folks in the local government are filled with nonsensical self aggrandizement. We can only hope they walk too close to the local canals and waterways, the ones where big ‘gators are sunning.

  10. Great article… got me nice and angry.

    This is the sort of thing reason should be covering – because these are issues that impact liberty on a daily basis and nobody else is going to have this beat.

    1. And at the local level, where the real infractions are occurring.

  11. This type of problems what awaits a lot of elderlies in this country with all these states and munis in virtual bankruptcy. Similar things happen in some desolate munis in Cali. I don’t expect our elected official to protect us. They will come at you for their pensions.

  12. When I was a kid all this warranted was a cop telling us Mr. or Mrs. so and so will give you a few bucks if you cut their grass. Problem solved.

    1. Aaaagh! Child labor!! Failure to withhold Social Security taxes! No OSHA inspection of the workplace and equipment! Bring in the Feds and the armored attack vehicles! We’ll burn the place to the ground, but the grass won’t be too high anymore.

  13. I always enjoy it when IJ gets involved. It usually means the local government bureaucrats are going to lose badly.

  14. Perhaps a few concerned citizens could bring lawn mowers to the next city council meeting.

    1. and fire them up.

      1. Lawn mowers < wood chippers

  15. MAGA, first step. get rid of this city council.

  16. “Well someone’s gotta pay for Medicaid for ALL (or any other number of supposed *free* socialist entitlements)” — Just as well start with Jim Ficken.

    How about some more licensing fee’s? More property tax levi’s “for those children”. How about price fixing and sucking off the tit of the utilities commission?

    Or the BEST levy yet!!! A single-payment levy to export the communistic minds (i.e. Democrats) to N. Korea where they can find that peace and happiness they insist they preach about.

    1. Well, OK. But you must use only US flagged ships for the transport.

  17. The perverse incentives caused when they pay themselves via fines…like when LEOs get money from forfeiture.

    Civil asset forfeiture is an abomination and must be done away with. But at least let’s remove the perverse incentives by putting all forfeiture monies into victim restitution funds and never into LEO or even general funds.

    For these city fines, make them go to fund only property tax cuts or something where the perverse incentive for the bureaucrats is removed.

  18. […] discovered his yard turf was longer than the allowable 10 inches for an eight-week period, Reason […]

  19. […] discovered his yard turf was longer than the allowable 10 inches for an eight-week period, Reason […]

  20. […] discovered his yard turf was longer than the allowable 10 inches for an eight-week period, Reason […]

  21. […] discovered his yard turf was longer than the allowable 10 inches for an eight-week period, Reason […]

  22. […] A Florida city is attempting to seize the home of an elderly man who let his grass get too long while he was caring for his dying mother. [Link] […]

  23. I’m going to leave my lawn unmown this summer in solidarity with this man.

  24. But, but…we are a nation of laws!

  25. CODE NAZIS TRY AND STEAL HOME BECAUSE PLANTS WERE TOO TALL

    This is what corrupt government looks like. They create arbitrary laws that regulate things like how high certain species of plants are, and then use those regulations to steal thousands of dollars from people and in some cases, to steal their homes.

    Here is an example;
    If you have Paspalum Notatum growing on your property, it cannot be taller than 10 inches or you may be forced to give us your money and your house. But if you have Forestiera Segregata growing on your property, it can be as tall as the house or taller, and your house will not be confiscated.

    Tom Trask’s law firm specializes in helping towns create these predatory laws or ordinances. Then he gets these towns to hire him as their lawyer and in many cases the actual “magistrate” that will act like a judge and hear cases of whether or not you are guilty for violating the ordinances that he himself helped the towns creat. He coincidentally always seems to rule in the town”s favor.

    According to an analysis in Ficken’s lawsuit, the city collected almost $1.3 million in code enforcement violations in 2018 — up from $34,000 in 2007. I wonder if that 20 fold increase coincided with retaining the Trask law firm?

    I know Jim Ficken as he used to be a neighbor of mine in Clearwater. He is a nice man and I never had an issue with how he kept his property. I actually went to the Dunedin Town Counsel on one occasion to request a continuance for Mr. Ficken when he was away attending to his sick mother. Of course, they would have no such mercy and were both rude and arrogant. I’ve even gone over with him and helped him cut the grass on this property.

    I have also fought Tom Trask’s law firm and the Town of Redington Shores when they tried to give me citations for “two boat trailers” on a property that I was temporarily residing at when I had not parked either boat trailer on the property and did not own the property in question. I also pointed out to both the town and Trask’s firm that the citations that were written by them did not include any real language from any actual code. They literally just made up code citation language and put it on the ticket. Trask’s Firm’s response was to summon me to civil court where I soundly thrashed Trask and Daigneault’s ass representing myself. The only response they had was “well your honor, that’s the way we have been doing it for over a decade”. The judge was not impressed.

    Tom Trask was also involved in massive fraud by the Town of Redington Shores Code enforcement Nazi Joe Walker. Walker spent 20 years harassing the Town of Redington’s residents making hundreds of unreasonable demands, fining them millions of dollars and costing them thousands in property values and legal fees…… and he was not even licensed to be a code enforcement officer. Tom Trask would then be hired as the town’s magistrate to enforce the citations from the unlicensed code Nazi. I guess the “rules” only apply to those not in government?

    The Trask law firm has also been deeply involved in the harassment of Sweet Sage Cafe and having the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office hired to literally count chairs in the restaurant after the Trask law firm helped North Redington Beach implement multiple retaliatory new code enforcement laws restricting parking to limit seats inside the establishment. A Federal Appeals Court ruling just struck down the code ordinance as being unconstitutional.

    The point here is that government has become way too predatory, unethical and corrupt, but where can you go for help from bad government? There is no place to go unless you want to spend $110,000 fighting them like Sweet Sage Cafe was forced to do by Tom Trask’s law firm.

    As Sheriff of Pinellas County, I will initiate the “Political corruption Unit” which will investigate corrupt local governments like the ones Tom Trask helps represent. Most people do not realize that code enforcement officers cannot come onto your property without permission or a warrant. If you post “no trespassing” signs and a code enforcement officer comes onto your property I will arrest them as Sheriff.

    In the case of the the Dunedin code enforcement board, I would feel that a $500 a day fine for not cutting grass was a form of extortion and would consider arresting the entire bunch of them. However, if they had the same crew that cuts the Dunedin government owned grass cut Mr. Ficken’s, and decided to charge him a more reasonable fine of say $100 every two weeks for cutting the grass, there would be no fraud or extortion to arrest them for. See, this is easy. $7,000 fine for two weeks of “long” plants, or $100 for cutting the offensive long plants. One is extortion, the other is fair.

    As Sheriff of Pinellas County, I will represent the PEOPLE of Pinellas County, not corrupt local officials. Try calling Sheriff Robert Gualtieri with a complaint about a code enforcement trespass. Remember, Gualtieri is the one that sent his PCSO deputies to the Sweet Sage Cafe to count their chairs. And they could not even do that right because the two deputies could not figure out how many seats a bench was. LOL

  26. […] details are very well summarized in this Reason.com article by Brian Doherty so I won’t repeat all the details.     […]

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