Sandy Martinez has a car. So do her two adult children and her sister. When all four cars were parked at Martinez's home in Lantana, Florida, two of them sometimes extended slightly beyond the driveway, which is flanked by her lawn and a walkway. Because that violation of Lantana's municipal code is punishable by a fine of $250 per day, the city is demanding more than $100,000 from her, plus another $63,500 for cracks in the driveway and a fence that was blown over in a storm.
In a lawsuit that Martinez filed today with help from the Institute for Justice, she argues that such an enormous bill for trivial code violations—amounting to nearly four times her annual income—runs afoul of Florida's constitution. "The government cannot lock you into a lifetime of debt and cripple you financially for minor infractions that do not threaten health or safety," says Institute for Justice attorney Ari Bargil. "Florida's Constitution forbids fines that are 'excessive' or 'shock the conscience.' And that's exactly how to describe six-figure fines for petty violations—unconscionable."
Martinez's street has no curbs and is not wide enough to accommodate parked cars. She and her relatives therefore could not legally or safely park on the street, leaving the driveway as the only option. But as the complaint notes, "parking on one's own front yard space, even a tiny bit, is illegal in Lantana."
On May 6, 2019, Martinez received a citation for "vehicles parked on unapproved
surface/grass/walkway." After a hearing on June 20, the city imposed an accumulated fine of $11,500. Martinez repeatedly tried to arrange a visit by a code enforcement officer to show that she had corrected the violation. But after those efforts proved "fruitless," the complaint says, she "eventually forgot about the issue." Her daily fines therefore continued to accumulate for 407 days, and the total now exceeds $100,000. Nobody had told her that would happen.
In addition to the parking situation, the city faulted Martinez for driveway cracks that the complaint describes as "minor and purely cosmetic." Because Martinez "did not have the time or money to fix [the driveway] right away," the lawsuit says, she was hit with $75 daily fines for 215 days, totaling $16,125—"far greater than the cost of an entirely new driveway."
And then there was the fence. Because it was downed by a major storm, the repair was covered by insurance. But the claim took quite a while to process, and meanwhile Martinez could not afford to fix the fence. The delay resulted in $125 daily fines for 379 days, totaling $47,375—"several times the cost of the repair and substantially more than the cost of a completely new fence."
All told, Martinez is on the hook for $165,250, plus interest. Although she "is now fully in compliance and has not had any new cases opened against her," the lawsuit says, the only way she could begin to cover that debt would be selling her home. But even that option is not feasible, because she "would never realize nearly enough profit from the sale of the Home to pay both her mortgage and the City's fines."
As much as Martinez might want to escape Lantana and its draconian decrees, she is stuck where she is. "Given Sandy's career and current income, she will be unable to move for many years, if ever," the complaint says. "If she moves, she will owe so much money that she will be unable to start anew anywhere else. She cannot seek a job anywhere not in driving distance of her current home. When she is older, she will not be able to retire at a different residence. The crippling fines she faces trap Sandy in a place she wants to leave."
The punishment will continue even after Martinez is dead. While she is currently protected from foreclosure for the fines by Florida's homestead exemption, the city can seize the house once she dies. "But for the City's fines against her, Sandy would be able to pass the Home to her children upon her death as long as she continues to pay her mortgage," the lawsuit notes. "However, as a result of the fines against her, Sandy's children will not inherit the Home."
The lawsuit notes that none of Martinez's code violations presented "a legitimate threat to the health and safety of the general public in Lantana." It argues that the penalties violate the state constitution's ban on "excessive fines" because they are "grossly disproportionate" and "shock the conscience."
Martinez thinks "it's ridiculous that Lantana would charge me over $100,000 for parking on my own grass that I paid for." She says the fines "basically make me a renter in my own home," adding, "I hope that by successfully challenging these fines, I can ensure that no one else has to go through something similar."
Martinez's case is part of the Institute for Justice's broader attack on local code enforcement practices that generate revenue by imposing outrageous fines for trivial offenses, such as $30,000 for tall grass in Dunedin, Florida, and $90,000 for trucks parked on rural property in Eagle, Wisconsin. "Municipal code enforcement in America is completely out of control," says Institute for Justice attorney Michael Greenberg. "All over the country, hardworking people regularly face financial ruin from daily code enforcement penalties that quickly snowball into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our constitutional protection from excessive fines prohibits precisely this sort of abuse."