Florida

Florida Lawmakers Are Cracking Down on Secret Snitches

Two state bills would generally prohibit local code enforcement officials from acting on anonymously reported violations.

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Whether you're being penalized for having grass that's too tall, or for running a home business in a residential neighborhood, chances are it was an anonymous complaint from a nosy neighbor that sent code inspectors to your door. Rapidly advancing legislation in Florida aims to put a stop to this phenomenon.

In late March, the Florida Senate voted 27-11 in favor of Senate Bill (S.B.) 60. That bill, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Bradly (R–Fleming Island), would forbid city or county code inspectors from acting on complaints about code violations unless the complainant provides their name and address.

The bill makes an exception for situations where an inspector has reason to believe an anonymously reported code violation poses "an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare" or the "imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources."

A companion bill in the Florida House of Representatives, House Bill (H.B.) 833, would also make an exception for complainants who state they have "a substantial fear of retaliation or of status-based legal jeopardy" as a result of filing a complaint under their own name.

The House bill, sponsored by Toby Overdorf (R–Palm City), would also make an anonymous complainant liable for any costs a city or county accrued investigating baseless complaints made by people who falsely expressed fear of retaliation.

Some local governments in Florida already have done away with anonymous compliant systems. Since March 2013, Collier County has required people to provide a name and phone number when calling code enforcement unless they were reporting an emergency violation, according to a committee staff analysis of H.B. 833.

The idea behind banning anonymous complaints, Overdorf says, is to eliminate the ability of people to file "frivolous" complaints against their neighbors, reports WUSF.

"This bill reflects that the Florida legislature understands we have a problem with code enforcement in general. This is a measure that will perhaps eliminate one of the more pernicious aspects of code enforcement," Ari Bargil, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, says of S.B. 60.

Bargil and the Institute for Justice have sued a number of Florida cities on behalf of homeowners slapped with fines after secret snitches reported innocuous code violations to local officials.

That includes a Miami Shores couple who were threatened with fines of $50 a day after someone reported their illegal vegetable garden. They eventually lost the court battle but won the war when the Florida legislature passed a bill legalizing home vegetable gardens.

The Institute for Justice is also suing the city of Dunedin, Florida, after code enforcement officers, acting on an anonymous complaint, fined a homeowner $500 per day for tall grass while he was out of town for 60 days, resulting in $30,000 in total fines.

Bargil says that banning local governments from acting on anonymous complaints will cut down the instances of people using code enforcement to carry out neighborhood vendettas. It will also lessen the instances of local governments hiding behind anonymous complaints when accused of heavy-handed enforcement.

Still, the root problem is the fact that cities have too many code restrictions to begin with.

"If someone develops an issue with a neighbor, it's very easy for someone to find a thing they want to stick their neighbor with and mobilize the city's municipal code enforcement body to go after that person," Bargil tells Reason, adding that local governments also often have a profit incentive to fine people into oblivion.

Requiring neighbors to put their name on a complaint might lessen some people's willingness to make them, but it won't do anything to touch the underlying codes that ban all sorts of harmless activities.

NEXT: A Medical Student Questioned Microaggressions. UVA Branded Him a Threat and Banished Him from Campus.

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  1. Taking all the fun out of swatting the guy down the street.

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  2. Still, the root problem is the fact that cities have too many code restrictions to begin with.

    ding ding ding

    1. Is that your food bell, fatty?

      1. jeffy needs to keep the focus on the ‘too many codes’ part and not the ‘no anonymous reports’ part in case his neighbors suspect he is the one calling the cops on them for not wearing a mask while walking their dog.

        jeffy knows where all the unscooped poop lies.

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  5. The bill makes an exception for situations where an inspector has reason to believe an anonymously reported code violation poses “an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare” or the “imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources.”

    And no one will ask ‘why are there codes that cover situations *other* than those that pose imminent threats to public health, safety, welfare or the imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources?’

    1. Because those codes are out of the legislature’s hands.

    2. The only thing worse than a neighborhood with an HOA is a neighborhood without an HOA.

  6. Bargill says that banning local governments from acting on anonymous complaints will cut down the instances of people using code enforcement to carry out neighborhood vendettas. It will also lessen the instances of local governments hiding behind anonymous complaints when accused of heavy-handed enforcement.

    No it won’t.

    It will just mean that code enforcers will just be spending more time ‘inspecting properties’ – and then just fining people for violations ‘found while patrolling’.

    1. The fix would be to remove from the code all violations that aren’t worth killing someone over.

      1. If I may presume to commit heresy – this meme is not 100% on target.

        Some jurisdictions still arrest people for shoplifting. If the shoplifter goes for a cop’s gun and gets shot, one can say “waah, he was killed over a can of beer,” or whatever.

        I’d say that, in passing a law, consider whether it’s worth it to crack down on someone who resists, since the basis for government is ultimately force. I would distrust a guy with a law if (s)he babbles about “voluntary compliance.”

        So if someone would rather threaten deadly force than submit to arrest over stealing a can of beer, I’d say shooting him is justified. I’d say the problem was the stolen beer *plus* the threat of deadly force.

        1. So if someone would rather threaten deadly force than submit to arrest over stealing a can of beer, I’d say shooting him is justified.

          So, what about someone who simply refuses to submit?

          Do the police then not ramp up the violence until they do or until they die?

          I’m not against the possibility of being killed for shoplifting – I just don’t go around pretending that laws are not enforced through extreme violence.

          As such, I think we should really, really, really think really hard about what we make illegal. Because if we want to make people do things they would not otherwise be doing on their own anyway – we’re gonna have to kill somebody. Pour encourager les autres.

          1. Yes, indeed, a sobering thought.

            And I think you’re alluding to those folks who light-heartedly pass laws in the thought that all good citizens will just “voluntarily” obey and the community becomes a better place.

            It would help to think re a law “what if someone resisted this law unto death – would that be an outcome we [as opposed to the resister] can live with?”

          2. Im glad Im not the only one who sees it this way. This, to me, is the real crux of the matter with police violence. Theyre doing their job, and conversely, I have a very hard time faulting someone who doesnt want to submit to having their freedom taken away. I think a lot of high testosterone men have a natural instinct to resist being physically restrained. Idk… we’re between a rock and a hard place.

            I think youre spot on that people really dont think hard enough about these things. Especially women that drive most of these laws, since they arent as prone to either commit crimes or refuse to submit to authority attempting to take away their freedom.

  7. In our county if a code violation is not hurting anyone it can’t be enforced. for some reason our building department ignores that rule and pesters people all the time.

    1. Then what is the point of having it in the code?

  8. Many of the examples given, like the guy who didn’t arrange for his grass to be cut when out of town for 60 days, seem to be legitimate complaints. (If you think people shouldn’t be getting tickets for too-tall grass in the first place, then your issue is with the code itself and not with the manner of complaint.) So what does it do to expose the name of the complainer? Is the idea that they’re supposed to be intimidated into not complaining?

    How about this for a solution: Allow anonymous complaints, but the only thing you can do is complain about a block, not an address. The inspector comes and looks at the whole block without knowing which house was complained about. This way, if you complain about your next door neighbor, you may well be inviting a ticket for yourself. That should deter any complaints that are truly frivolous.

    1. Left out of this article:
      Last summer, while Jim was out of town to take care of his late mother’s estate, a friend he’d paid to mow his lawn died unexpectedly (see IJ link in the article).

      So while the guy is technically in violation, screw any county that doesn’t reverse course when other facts come to light mitigating the circumstances. And no matter what $30,000 is an excessive fine and in violation of the Constitution, which SCOTUS just ruled applies to the States in the recent Timbs case.

      1. That does put things in a different light. And I wouldn’t charge him more than, say, triple the cost of someone running a lawn mower over his yard every two weeks, even if he was intentionally failing to mow it.

        But my point stands that it’s not the anonymity of the complaint that’s the problem. The person who complained likely had no idea that the guy paid to mow the lawn died. The *complaint* was legitimate even if there was a good reason why the owner didn’t have the lawn mowed. So what good does revealing the identity of the complainer do?

    2. FFS, why would anyone be afraid to put their name on a legitimate complaint?

      Anonymity fosters contempt. See: any post by KillAllRednecks

    3. then your issue is with the code itself and not with the manner of complaint.

      No, my issue is with the manner of complaint – anonymous complaints for non-violent code violations shouldn’t be.

      Whether or not any individual thing should or should not be a violation is a separate issue.

      Maybe the person complaining could have been a nice guy and ran a mower over the lawn one weekend if it was bothering him so much.

      1. +++
        Youre on it today

  9. Slippery slope warning!
    The next thing we know confronting your accuser will be a constitutional right!

    1. Anonymous sources are the backbone of a compliant society.

      1. And our media.

    2. See something, snitch something.

      1. see something,snitch something.

        Your crime was insufficient condemnation.

  10. City draconianly enforces petty codes and blames the residents? Is that it?

    How about they rewrite the code to require willful violations?

  11. Next, we need a law prohibiting excessive fines. They could put it in the Bill of Rights.

  12. The key to avoiding petty code violations is to get the fuck out of their jurisdiction. Life across the border, just a few miles down the road, is cheaper and quieter. I can’t see my neighbors from my yard and they can’t see me. Works just fine.

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  14. This bill will help. But what will help more would be a bill that diverts all fine revenue to some authority a long way away from the place where the violation occurs, so that no jurisdiction will be able to finance its day-to-day operations entirely or mostly with fine revenue rather than impose taxes. Because that practice is predatory and makes law enforcement rightfully hated.

    And that principle doesn’t just apply to government, either. Make the banking industry go back to getting its revenue from loan interest rather than NSF penalties, and banking can become an honorable job once more.

    1. Interesting idea. So, like, the Orlando fines go to Tampa Bay and vice versa? Or maybe you need more than two cities in the chain so they don’t get some unofficial reciprocity thing going.

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