This is not your typical “Florida Man” story. The city of Dunedin (pronounced duh-NEED-in), suburb of Tampa, has levied nearly $30,000 worth of fines on Jim Ficken over his uncut grass that grew above 10 inches while he was away tending to his sick and dying mother. The city didn’t even telling him he was being fined until they handed over the big bill. Living on a fixed income, Ficken is in no position to pay the fines. Dunedin’s “Code Enforcement Board” has now voted to seize the home from Ficken, and he’s fighting back with the help of attorneys from the Institute For Justice.
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The city of Dunedin’s Code Enforcement Board moved to foreclose on Ficken’s home Tuesday because he has failed to pay nearly $30,000 in code violation fines he accrued in 2018. The city fined him $500 per day over the summer because his grass grew longer than 10 inches.
The same day the city moved to foreclose, Ficken, 69, filed a lawsuit against Dunedin and members of its Code Enforcement Board. He’s seeking $1 in nominal damages, attorneys fees and injunctions that would relieve him of the fines. The suit also hopes to end Dunedin’s alleged practice of fining people “without considering a homeowner’s ability to pay.”
“It’s an excessive fine, and everyone I’ve spoken to says it’s outrageous,” Ficken, a retiree on a fixed income, said.
Dunedin mayor Julie Ward Bujalski defended the Code Enforcement Board. It’s a citizen-driven body that reacts to complaints from other Dunedin residents, Bujalski said. Ficken’s property was the subject of complaints from his neighbors, so the board took action. (Ficken’s attorneys said they haven’t seen any evidence neighbors complained.)
According to the lawsuit, Ficken routinely spent weeks at a time away from his property to aid his dying mother in South Carolina. In 2015, while Ficken was in South Carolina, Dunedin cited him for having grass that was too tall. According to code enforcement policy, any subsequent violation of a city code in the next five years would make Ficken a repeat offender.
Ficken’s mother, Marinelle Ficken, died in the summer of 2016. Ficken left Dunedin for two weeks in July of 2018 to manage her estate. During that time, the man who mowed his lawn, Russ Kellum, died suddenly. When Ficken got back and tried to mow his overgrown lawn himself, his mower broke, the lawsuit said.
Dunedin gave Ficken no notice that it was charging him $500 every day for the length of his grass, Ficken said. The fines were so hefty because Ficken was a repeat offender.
It was nearly two months before Ficken had any idea he owed the city tens of thousands of dollars, he said. On Aug. 20, a code enforcement official making his daily rounds told Ficken to expect “a big bill from the city,” his lawsuit said.
That day, Ficken bought a new mower. The next day, Aug. 21, he mowed his lawn. He also received notice from the city that he was to appear at a hearing with the Code Enforcement Board on Sept 4.
Ficken couldn’t make that hearing. He was due in South Carolina to manage another issue with his mother’s estate, he said. The board met without him on Sept. 4 and determined his fine would stand. The board also approved a separate fine, alleging that his grass had grown too long again starting Aug. 31. Ficken said he had no notice of this fine either.
Between the two fines, Ficken owed Dunedin $29,833.50 — on a house with a $125,541 market value, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser.
Yesterday, the city of Dunedin, Florida did something unthinkable: it authorized the foreclosure of someone’s home in order to collect fines the city assessed for having grass that was too long.
And now, today, Jim Ficken, a 69-year old resident of Dunedin, is fighting back. He’s partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm, to sue the city to end its abusive practice of saddling homeowners with outrageously large fines—or even foreclosures—for minor code enforcement matters. The lawsuit, which was filed in Pinellas County Court, argues that the fines are excessive under the excessive fines clauses of the U.S. and Florida Constitutions. Earlier this year, IJ won a unanimous decision affirming the importance of Eighth Amendment at the U.S. Supreme Court.
So how did Jim come to have owe nearly $30,000 in fines over his lawn? 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. Grass grows quickly in Florida, and Jim’s lawn soon grew taller than ten inches. Without so much as a phone call, the city then began assessing fines of $500 per day, every day. By the time he got back and became aware that he was being fined, the fines were already sky high and unpayable for someone like Jim, who lives on a fixed income. A full timeline of events is available here.
“Losing your home because you inadvertently let your grass get too long is the very definition of an excessive fine,” said Ari Bargil, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. “No one should face crippling fines, let alone foreclosure, for trivial code violations. Dunedin’s Code Enforcement Board operates like a nightmarish homeowners association, but as a public board, it cannot rule with an iron fist. Rather, it must abide by state laws, as well as the state and federal constitution.”
Bargil continued: “Jim asked the city if they would reconsider and give him a fair fine or a new hearing, but they rejected him. Now they are trying to take his home. But the amount of Jim’s fine is wildly out of proportion to the offense of having long grass. The Institute for Justice will defend Jim’s constitutional right to be free from this excessive fine so that he can keep his home.”
This case is bigger than just Jim. In 2007, the entire amount of fines that Dunedin imposed for code violations was $34,000—only a little more than the amount the city is now demanding for Jim’s lawn alone. A decade later, in 2017, the city was raking in 20 times as much, about $700,000. In fiscal year 2018, it collected almost $1.3 million in total fines. The city’s code‑enforcement attorney—the one who refused to negotiate with Jim—calls the system a “well‑oiled machine.” In 2018 alone, the city authorized foreclosure on 18 homes. In another case, the city authorized foreclosure to collect $250.
In the recent unanimous decision secured by IJ in Timbs v. Indiana, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed once and for all that the Constitution prohibits governments from imposing excessive fines. While the High Court confirmed that the right to be free from overly burdensome fines applies to the states, the justices did not set a clear standard for when a fine becomes excessive. Legal tradition maintains that a person’s ability to pay a fine should be considered, yet today few government bodies consider the fairness of imposing large fines on Americans of limited means. With local governments increasingly looking to pad their budgets by assessing fines and fees, Jim’s problem is emblematic of one facing many citizens.
“All over the country, citizens are being fined hundreds or thousands of dollars for minor violations and then threatened with the loss of their property or other serious consequences if they can’t pay up,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “The Founders knew that the government would always be tempted to levy outrageous penalties. It is past time for courts to give meaning to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines.”
The Institute for Justice has been at the forefront of fighting efforts by the government to use fines, fees and civil forfeiture as a means to raise revenue and as a means to pursue illegitimate goals. Last week IJ filed a class action lawsuit challenging Chicago’s Impound Lot racket. Last year, it secured a federal consent decree putting in place reforms to ticketing practices in Pagedale, Mo., announced a settlement in a class action lawsuit against Philadelphia’s abusive forfeiture system and launched a lawsuit against abusive code enforcement practices in Doraville, Ga. Earlier this year, IJ successfully represented Tyson Timbs at the U.S. Supreme Court, securing a 9-0 decision establishing that the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause applies to state and local governments.
Video report from WFTS in Tampa:
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The filed lawsuit: