8th Amendment

Stossel: Mow Your Lawn or Lose Your House!

Florida man may lose home because he didn’t cut his grass.


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Jim Ficken left his home to take care of his recently deceased mother's estate. While away, the man he paid to cut his lawn died. The grass in Ficken's yard grew more than 10 inches long.

The City of Dunedin has an ordinance against long grass. The Florida city fined Ficken $500 a day. Over time the fines added up to almost $30,000.

"I was shocked," Ficken tells John Stossel, "It was just amazing that they would fine me that much."

Ficken doesn't have $30,000, and now the city wants to foreclose on his home.

Ficken's lawyer, Ari Bargil of the Institute for Justice, points out that the city could have "hire[d] a lawn service to come out and mow the grass, and send Jim a bill for 150 bucks, but they didn't do that."

The reason, says Bargil, is that the city "wants the money. Code enforcement is a major cash cow for the city."

Dunedin collected $34,000 in fines in 2007. Last year, the fines ballooned to $1.3 million. "That's an almost 4,000 percent increase," Bargil tells Stossel, adding the city attorney "has called their code enforcement body a 'well-oiled machine.'"

City officials released a statement saying they "have come under recent unfair criticism." They argue that Ficken is a "repeat offender" and has a "chronic history" of not maintaining his property.

Ficken admits he is a "bit of a slob" but adds, "I got everything taken care of when they notified me."

Bargil argues Dunedin's big fines violate the 8th Amendment. That protects us not only from cruel and unusual punishment but from "excessive fines."

Stossel agrees. What's more excessive than politicians taking your home because you didn't cut your grass?

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The views expressed in this video are solely those of John Stossel; his independent production company, Stossel Productions; and the people he interviews. The claims and opinions set forth in the video and accompanying text are not necessarily those of Reason.

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  1. The City of Dunedin has an ordinance against long grass

    The City would have to define what “long grass is” for this to be a valid case of city ordinances, IMO.

    With that being said, if the City takes his home, under the 5th Amendment the owner is entitled to just compensation. The City should still have to get their fines from the owner after he is fully paid his just compensation. Otherwise, local jurisdictions can just make arbitrary ordinances, fine owners into oblivion, seize property, and effectively steal property in violation of the 5A.

    I am okay with eminent domain with just compensation being paid, as long as the property is actually used for public use, like roads and military installations.

    I am not okay with fine/tax levies resulting in property being taken for that purpose and not public use. The government can put a lien on the property like regular Americans who have court judgments and any sale of the property results in the lien(s) being paid off.

    1. RE: Defining “long grass” is:

      I believe this covered in the “Fuck You That’s Why” section of the city code.

    2. Haven’t there been too many cases of eminent domain property seizures that have resulted poorly for us to consider it a reasonable policy? Maybe in an idealistic world it’s rational but I wouldn’t trust many governments with that power.

    3. It’s not just the 8th Amendment that’s implicated here.
      Or just the 8th and the 5th.

      I see room for application of the Second Amendment.

      The Founding Fathers fully intended that the People should have the power to overthrow oppressive government. Taking someone’s home because his grass wasn’t cut (though he made provisions for having it done) strikes me as being on the wrong side of the “oppression” line. It wouldn’t be the first time an American gave up on the process as perverted by jackass politicians. (see Carl Drega.

      [And Reason – why did you take away the “preview” feature? Strikes me as particularly stupid.]

  2. I live here in Dunedin. Code enforcement is about on par with most coastal cities like this. The big fines are mostly symbolic and they tend to work with people to get them in compliance. Locals say this guy is a slumlord extraordinaire with multiple blighted properties. Still not a fan of the big fines. I think the increase in fines is more attributable to the real estate boom here – a lot of flippers doing some really shady fixes.

    1. Well whatever the facts this is good example of becoming the monster when you’re fighting the monster. Judging people and acting on that judgment is a perilous journey and if you’re not thoughtful and just about it you can easily overstep and commit the greater offense making you everything and more then what you set out to stop.

    2. I got into it with my city over garbage collection fees. Told them I didn’t want the third party service ($20/month) – that I’d just haul my own once in awhile (about $10/year). The city has a cozy relationship with the trash hauler. The city does their billing and collects $1 per billing. But the trash hauler is a third party – so there’s no more force of law than if the city were to tell me I had to have a particular cable TV service.
      Long story short – the City decided to cut off my water because I dropped the trash service. I was not amused, so I headed down to the courthouse the next morning, pencil-whipped a complaint, requested to see the judge about an emergency TRO and by noon had a court order commanding the city to restore my water service. The check for $6000 from the City (to drop the suit) followed a couple weeks later.

      They’ve been billing me for trash service (that I haven’t used) for 28 years. About 15 years ago, they decided to cut off my water again. I’d paid an incorrect amount (inattention and all those back charges). Probably could have won in court, but just decided to put in a well and stop paying for water. Every month they send me a bill for about $40 in “current” charges plus about $5000 in “late” payments. Every month I don’t pay it. As I said, this has been going on for almost 30 years.
      Eventually, I may take them to court again – but when I do, I won’t be as nice as the first two times and it will cost them a lot more. Alternatively, it looks like the old mayor is on the way out and the new mayor will owe me BIG TIME as one of two lieutenants on her campaign. She’s big on attacking corruption. I may give her a nudge on this as one of the first things to investigate. Thirty years of harassment probably qualifies.

      A couple years ago, the code guy came around and asked if I had a permit for a solar collector I had on the roof. (Nice guy doing a nasty job.) I told him no. He (obviously knowing my history with the city) asked if I thought I needed one? I told him no. He said he’d already checked with his supervisor and they’d decided I needed one. I told him to go ahead and send me a notice of violation and I’d see them in court. [I think he swallowed his gum.] I was feeling generous that day. I told him he might want to check Florida Statutes first.
      Never heard from them again. (Florida Statutes has some very interesting language regarding “energy saving devices”.)

      The County has a pet licensing program. It’s another scam. I do get my dog vaccinated for rabies, but the $5 “license” fee is just sent to an outfit in Texas that skims off half and sends the rest to the Country, and no adjoining county has a similar fee – so fuck them. The registration is required for all “rabies susceptible animals”.

      I was running my dog (off the leash). We don’t have a leash law – just a requirement that the dogs be under the “observation and control” of the owner. My dog is well-trained. Some bitch in the neighborhood was walking her Golden Retriever. Her dog kept lunging on the leash to try to get to my dog (probably to play). The woman could barely control her dog and of course blamed my dog for being off the leash. (What difference THAT makes eludes me.) My dog was ignoring them both – as she is trained to do. I told the bitch to fuck off.

      She called the doggie patrol. The doggie woman determined I didn’t have the $5 tag and wanted me to hang around while she wrote a citation. I told her I wouldn’t and went inside.

      She called the cops.

      The cop shows up and I just didn’t answer the door. So he calls me on the phone. I asked if he had a warrant or exigent circumstances. He said, “no”, but said the dog woman wanted me to come out so she could give me a citation. I told him “no thank you” and “have a nice day.”

      They left.

      So the dog woman reported me and my drivers license was suspended… for most of a day. Seriously. As soon as I got the notice, I called the miscreants up and told them if my license wasn’t reinstated immediately, I’d see them in court. Now, normally this might be a hollow threat – but apparently they understood they would really wind up in court because they suspended my license over a $5 fee. (Did I mention it was a scam?) They caved. I had the clerk of the court send me verification of reinstatement.

      So what’s the winning plan on something like this? Read the fucking law. My dog is NOT rabies susceptible. Why? Because she’s had a rabies vaccination. But the code enforcement officer? The prosecutor? The judge? They’re all mammals, and technically, that makes them animals, and I was willing to bet that one or all of them was NOT vaccinated for rabies. Could you see the dog woman explaining why she, as a rabies-susceptible animal, didn’t have a license?

      Incidentally, I HAVE had a rabies shot due to the fact that I traveled internationally to a region where rabies was more common. Don’t know if the inoculation has lapsed or not – but at least there’s an argument to be made that of everyone in the courtroom, my dog and I were the only ones who did NOT have to be licensed by the terms of the law.

      But I didn’t even have to tell any of them that. Just kept it in my pocket pending a court hearing that never came.

      Years back in Pennsylvania, had another doggie-patrol jerk harassing me over my dog. I went in to work on a Saturday. The temperature outside was about 60 degrees, and I left my dog in my car with the windows halfway rolled down in the nearly abandoned parking lot. Someone called the doggie guy. I get called out of work for a lecture and a warning “Not to do it again or I’d get a citation.” Yeah. Right. I told the moron (Fenstermacher was his name – no – really) to go ahead and write the citation. Did I mentioned he’d had a cop roll out too?
      So I actually went to court on that one. And the judge said words to the effect of, “Sometimes the referee makes a bad call. Everyone in the stadium knows it and they may all think he’s a jerk – but that doesn’t mean he actually is one. He just made a bad call. Case dismissed.”

      I know this all sounds like contentious bullshit – but if no one pushes back, no one will be able to push back.

      Know what I most earnestly desire from my government at all levels?

      To be left alone.

      For the most part, that’s working at the local level. They seem to be getting the message.

  3. That’s a crime. 500 a day is fucking joke. How about these control freak thief scum instead if they just have to do it how about they mow the grass themselves and send the guy a bill for $50 every two weeks.

    1. how about they mow the grass themselves and send the guy a bill for $50 every two weeks.

      No city could mow a lawn for $50. It would be $500 at least.

  4. ‘Unfair criticism’? They deserve much more than just criticism. Stealing a man’s hone over fricken grass is preposterous.

  5. “bookies” — I know our “City Officials” are the most arrogant twits one will ever deal with. They are dumber than quack grass but insist within their own heads that they are gods. The real kick in the shorts comes when they end up getting re-elected. People really need to UN-brainwash themselves from believing the “bookie” or “career politician” is a god instead of being the arrogant and idiotic pricks they really are.

  6. Almost every bizarre story is about “Florida man.”

    1. LOL. Good one. Perhaps a new sub-species?

  7. If they’re fining $500/day do they have someone checking compliance daily? Grass can grow fast in Florida…

    1. But these type of laws wouldn’t be meant only to allow the government to target whoever is on the “wanted” list … would they? Course not. Still, it seems weird that the average American commits three felonies every day.

  8. Where’s the “Florida Man greets code enforcement offiials with shotgun” headline?

  9. So, is the 8th amendment commonly seen as fully incorporated into state and local governments? If it were, I think a lot more than silly front lawn rules would be open to question.

  10. No, no, no!
    Jim Ficken is going to lose his house because he didn’t SMOKE his grass.
    Get it right.

  11. I know I’m going to get ripped for this, but the politicians only deserve half of the blame here. The other half falls squarely on Jim’s neighbors and his fellow citizens of Dunedin. These draconian “beautification” types of laws are only allowed to be implemented because passive-aggressive citizens won’t talk to their neighbors about even the littlest nuisances. They are so small-minded, miserable, and lazy that they would rather have the government fix little nuisances for them at the expense of liberty. Fuck em.

    1. True. A lot of folks are chickenshit.

  12. Do not mess with Florida Man


  13. here is the statement from the City.

    Statement from the City of Dunedin Regarding Code Enforcement Actions May 24, 2019
    Post Date:05/24/2019 11:30 AM
    Statement from the City of Dunedin Regarding Code Enforcement Actions May 24, 2019

    The City of Dunedin has come under recent unfair criticism for entirely appropriate actions taken by code enforcement. This criticism incorrectly suggests that the affected homeowner is a victim of sudden and unwarranted action by the City – when, in fact, he is an offender with a repeated history of code violations. A thorough review of the history of this case shows that the City took this final action only after several years of repeat violations that could no longer be overlooked.

    The primary purpose of code enforcement is to maintain the appropriate high standards that make Dunedin such a special place, and to maintain property values and the quality of life that our residents expect and deserve. The broad goal of any code enforcement action is to compel property owners to meet the same unified standard as their neighbors and to bring their property into compliance, as the rest of the community cooperatively and consistently does.

    Unfortunately, the property in question owned by Mr. Jim Ficken has a long and chronic history of falling far short of this goal- intentionally. The City has had to intervene 12 times since 2007 to get the owner to properly maintain his property. Each time, the property was brought into compliance but only after intervention by the City.

    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.

    The City of Dunedin has no desire to impose large fines or foreclose on residential property. Our goal has been, and remains, to ensure that Dunedin is a high-quality community for our residents and visitors alike. The law-abiding residents of our wonderful community routinely and regularly maintain their properties consistent with this reasonable goal – as good citizens and good neighbors. Homeownership is a choice and a responsibility, and the owner of the property in this case has repeatedly failed to uphold that standard.

    For more information contact: Ron Sachs at 850-321-8048; or ron@sachsmedia.com

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