The town of Lantana, Florida, is demanding that Sandy Martinez pay it $165,000 in fines, which is nearly four times her annual income and more than half what her house is worth. The municipal code violations that led to those fines are decidedly less impressive: driveway cracks, a storm-damaged fence, and cars parked on her own property in an "unapproved" manner.
Martinez argues that Lantana's absurdly disproportionate response to her trivial infractions violates the state constitution's ban on "excessive fines." The Institute for Justice, which represents Martinez, says the case epitomizes "taxation by citation," the perverse practice of using code enforcement to raise revenue rather than protect public safety.
This week, Lantana, a town of about 12,000 people in Palm Beach County, asked 15th Judicial Circuit Judge Donald Hafele to dismiss Martinez's lawsuit. Hafele declined. "It's surreal that the town still refuses to admit that what it's doing to me is abusive and unfair," Martinez says.
The fines imposed on Martinez stem mostly from the way she and her family solved a parking puzzle. Martinez has a car. So do her two adult children and her sister. But her street has no curbs and is not wide enough to accommodate parked cars.
Since Martinez and her relatives could not legally or safely park on the street, the driveway seemed like the only viable option. When all four cars were parked at Martinez's home, two of them sometimes extended slightly beyond the driveway, which is flanked by her lawn and a walkway.
As Martinez's complaint notes, "parking on one's own front yard space, even a tiny bit, is illegal in Lantana." The penalty is $250 per day.
After she received her first citation in May 2019, 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."
The daily fines continued to accumulate, eventually exceeding $100,000. Martinez understandably thinks "it's ridiculous that Lantana would charge me over $100,000 for parking on my own grass that I paid for."
The city also 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 a while to resolve, 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."
Martinez's case is part of the Institute for Justice's broader attack on local code enforcement practices that impose outrageous fines for trifling offenses. Dunedin, Florida, for example, demanded $30,000 for tall grass, while Eagle, Wisconsin, imposed a $90,000 penalty for trucks parked on rural property.
Small towns facing hard times often come to rely on fines for a substantial part of their budgets, a habit that can be hard to shake. But the oppressive practices encouraged by that strategy leave residents bewildered, resentful, and angry—a situation highlighted by a 2015 Justice Department investigation of code enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri.
As much as Martinez might want to escape Lantana and its draconian decrees, she is trapped. Even selling her house would not raise enough money to cover her debt to the city, since she also would have to pay off her mortgage.
"Places like Lantana routinely impose crippling fines against residents for minor code violations," says Institute for Justice attorney Ari Bargil. "It is time that Florida courts make it clear that cities cannot fine people into poverty for trivial violations."
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