Government abuse

Government Bullies Want to Seize This Man's Home Because of Overgrown Grass

If governments can oppress, they usually will.

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The city of Dunedin, Florida, wants Jim Ficken's home.

Ficken's mom died, so he went to South Carolina to take care of her estate. He asked a friend to look after his house.

But then the friend died, and no one cut Ficken's grass. When it grew to 10 inches, Dunedin officials started fining him $500 a day.

The fine is now about $30,000.

"I was shocked," Ficken says in my latest video. City officials say they will foreclose on his home if he doesn't pay the fine, and Ficken doesn't have that much money.

"Do you have $30,000 lying around?!" he asked me.

"The city has gone nuclear!" complains his lawyer, Ari Bargil. "$500 per day for the violation of having tall grass…. They could have done what their own ordinances permit them to do: hire a lawn service to come out and mow the grass. Then send Jim a bill for 150 bucks. But they didn't do that."

Why not? Bargil and Ficken say it's because Dunedin's officials just want money.

Dunedin's politicians wouldn't talk to us. Instead, they spent $25,000 on a public relations firm that told reporters, "Dunedin has no desire to impose large fines… (only to) ensure that Dunedin is a high-quality community."

The cost of "high quality" keeps going up.

Eleven years ago, Dunedin fined people $34,000. Today, they want about that much from Ficken alone. Last year Dunedin collected $1.3 million in fines from residents.

"It's pretty apparent that code enforcement is a major cash cow for the city," says Bargil.

"I got violated for a lawn mower in my yard!" says one resident who has been fined $32,000. "They violated me for a hole the size of a quarter in my stucco…. They find people they can pick on…and they keep picking on them."

She started crying as she recounted: "I can't tell you how many sleepless nights I've had because of the city of Dunedin. Just try to think of what to say to them, just to have them leave me alone."

"The city is just a bunch of bullies, and they expect people not to stand up to 'em because to stand up to 'em requires expensive legal help," says Ficken.

Ficken managed to get expensive legal help for free from the Institute for Justice, a law firm that defends individuals abused by governments.

All across the country, "private citizens are being essentially extorted by their governments and fined incredible amounts of money for really, really small violations," says Bargil.

You can be fined for not trimming plants, the way Ficken was, but you can also be fined for trimming too much. A city in North Carolina fined a local church $100 per branch ($4,000) for excessive tree-pruning.

And in places such as Dunedin, if you can't pay a fine, they'll take your home.

"The city attorney of Dunedin last year sought permission to foreclose on 18 properties," says Bargil.

That violates the Eighth Amendment, says the Institute for Justice. The Amendment not only protects us from "cruel and unusual punishment" but also from "excessive fines."
The founding fathers, says Bargil, "recognized that the ability to fine is the ability to cripple. It's one of the ways, other than incarceration, that government can really oppress."

If governments can oppress, they usually will.

We should be grateful for the Eighth Amendment's protection against excessive fines.

And what's more excessive than politicians taking your home because you didn't cut your grass?

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  1. “On May 5, 2015, after almost eight years of attempting to work with Mr. Ficken to keep the property legally maintained, the Dunedin Code Enforcement Board – a group of volunteer citizens committed to the betterment of the community deemed the owner of the property to be a repeat offender for overgrowth, reflecting an ongoing disdain for his neighbors and community and for following reasonable rules and standards. The Board’s order clearly stated that, as a repeat offender, the owner would be subject to fines up to $500 per day for future violations . This fine level is standard for most Florida cities in dealing with a repeat violator.

    “Despite this clear advanced warning and repeated efforts to compel Mr. Ficken’s compliance, in early July 2018 the City received another complaint that the property was again overgrown. This led to unsuccessful attempts by the City to gain compliance. On May 7, 2019, the Board authorized the City Attorney’s office to file foreclosure actions.

    “The affected property is one of several owned by Mr. Ficken, and it is not his homestead residence of record. His homestead property in Clearwater has been the subject of 35 cases opened by that city over complaints from overgrowth and broken glass to abandoned vehicles.”

    https://www.dunedingov.com/Home/Components/News/News/4939/38?backlist=%2fcity-departments

    1. “This led to unsuccessful attempts by the City to gain compliance.”
      They could have hired a lawn firm and charged him $150.

      1. Look, the city isn’t paid to solve problems, they’re paid to find new things to call problems over which they can fine people.

        1. “Look, the city isn’t paid to solve problems, they’re paid to find new things to call problems over which they can fine people.”

          Yet for people/businesses harmed by others, the rule of “mitigation of damages” denies the plaintiff the right to recover that part of his or her damages which the court or a jury finds could reasonably have been avoided. Seems to me, the same should apply to the government. And hiring someone to mow the grass and charging the homeowner $150 for it, seems like more than enough compensation to pay for the government bureaucrat handling it. I’d bet I could do this for 20 homes a day, and assuming it costs $30 to mow the yard (50% more than I pay) that generates over $500,000/year. You see, the government is being even greedier than this.

      2. True. Still, these details change the perspective even if the city is still acting like complete dickheads

    2. He’s not a saint. But that doesn’t excuse what the city has done.

  2. “$500 per day for the violation of having tall grass…. They could have done what their own ordinances permit them to do: hire a lawn service to come out and mow the grass. Then send Jim a bill for 150 bucks. But they didn’t do that.”

    Excessive fines ($500/day) imposed which violates the 8th Amendment, then trespassing violation of law (having lawn service mow yard), and then Excessive fine ($150 for a single mowed yard) violation again.

    1. Since when sanctimonious, self-righteous and onerous politicians care about the US Constitution?

  3. A famous person once said that, “Government is the name we give to the things we do together.”

    Seems we do some pretty nasty things when we form groups!

    1. ..but it’s to make houses in our neighborhoods look nice.

      1. Good point. Where we would be without government forcing everyone to make their house look nice? Let’s face it: the vast majority of people enjoy living in squalor and will go out of their way to make sure the place they live looks like crap—especially if they have an ownership stake in it and they have invested in it. Yeah, I’m sure that’s right.

        1. I’m sure some of my neighbors say I live in squalor because I refuse to mow more than once every two weeks.

    2. ““Government is the name we give to the things we do together.””

      Because “Hell” was already taken.

  4. Just cut the Ficken grass!

  5. Governments at all levels in the US have discovered that raising taxes is an excellent way to be “seeking other opportunities” after the next election. But instead of deciding to cut back somewhere real (let’s face it, threats to cut fire and police services don’t actually save that goddamned much) the start raising revenue from fines.

    Hence, among other things, the Red Light/Speed Camera racket.

    I keep wondering at what point these pillocks are going to foreclose on somebody’s house over a tire swing or a un-permitted play fort and then get surprised at the next town meeting by an angry man with a pump-action 12 Ga.. They are, of course, at least dimly aware of the possibility, which is why they are so hot for gun control. But if they took it seriously, they would behave more circumspectly.

    1. Sounds like a lot of Dunedin pols should be found with a third eye. But if everyone is so angry about the practice, why hasn’t anyone stood up to run for office? Sounds like an easy issue to campaign on.

  6. Under Sec. 162.09 (3), Florida Statutes, a city cannot foreclose a code enforcement fine on Homestead property. So if this is his home, the lawsuit should be dismissed. Further, the $500 daily fine is the maximum. A reasonable code board or city commission has the ability to lower the fine to a more rational amount, but often they set the fine at the maximum to try and force immediate compliance or if the respondent fails to show up at the hearing. The city is also required to give notice of the hearing and fine by certified mail, posting, advertising or personal service. Sounds like someone may have fallen asleep at the switch here. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and the fine will be reduced to something proportional!

    1. According to the first comment on this post (above), it is not his homestead.

      1. Apparently, this guy buys houses and leaves them to deteriorate into shitholes. Not the poster boy for cases like this.

  7. The South Carolina Constitution also prohibits excessive fines, and sometimes state law as interpreted by state courts can prevent government abuse better than federal law. Lawyers should stop overlooking state constitutions as potential avenues for protecting individual rights.

    1. Agreed. Is the 8th amendment usually considered incorporated into state and local governments? Why not just use the Florida constitution to vindicate these naughty homeowners instead of always harping on something or other from the US constitution.

  8. They want the money. Money is our modern way of oppressing the citizens, replacing the guns and jails of yesteryear. Fine the heck out of them. And then fine them so more. And always, of course, at the maximum level the government has set forth. Is it “cruel and unusual punishment” to fine someone for not cutting the grass by an amount that a house is worth?

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  10. Most people fail to vote in local elections. If the city government is being unreasonable to a large number of homeowners, vote them out. It doesn’t cost much to mount a local election campaign and if they are pulling crap on a lot of property owners, it would be easy to get support.

    Or this person is not a careful property owner. If you own property, it is your responsibility to care for it. At least ensure you do not harm your neighbors’ property. High grass can lead to pests, rats and lower property values.

    While the fine sounds excessive, if the owner is managing the his property in such a way that it might negatively impact his neighbors’ property then this is how this may have come about with full support of neighboring property owners subject to the same potential fines.

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