Government Trying to Take Man’s Home over Overgrown Grass

Overgrown bushes and grass in South Bend, In., June 26, 2019 (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

It may be illegal, because it could violate our Eighth Amendment protections against excessive fines.

The city of Dunedin, Fla., told a man that it is going to take his home if he cannot pay the $30,000 in fines that he owes because his grass grew too long.

Yes — $30,000 for tall grass.

According to an article in Reason, Jim Ficken left his house in the care of a friend while he went to take care of his late mother’s estate following her death. Then, that friend died, and there was no one cutting the grass. It grew to ten inches, so city officials started fining him $500 per day — which has added up to $30,000, money that Ficken says he does not have.

“Do you have $30,000 laying around?” Ficken asked John Stossel in a video.

Ficken’s lawyer, Ari Bargil, claims that the city could have handled the (gasp!) long grass in a different way.

“The city has gone nuclear!” Bargil said. “$500 per day for the violation of having tall grass. . . . They could have done what their own ordinances permit them to do: hire a lawn service to come out and mow the grass. Then send Jim a bill for 150 bucks. But they didn’t do that.”

According to Stossel’s piece, the city’s level of fining has gone up astronomically: Eleven years ago, it fined people only $34,000, but that number shot up to a whopping $1.3 million last year.

“I got violated for a lawn mower in my yard!” one resident, who claimed she was fined $32,000, said. “They violated me for a hole the size of a quarter in my stucco. . . . They find people they can pick on . . . and they keep picking on them.”

Now Reason reports that the city has insisted to reporters (via a public-relations firm that cost it $25 grand) that the city “has no desire to impose large fines,” simply to “ensure that Dunedin is a high-quality community.”

I call B.S. After all, do you know what is the highest quality of community? One where a man who is dealing with multiple deaths of people close to him is not punished for having difficulty dealing with the logistics of it by having his home taken away. (Just a thought!)

Now, not only is what’s happening to Ficken enraging, it may also be illegal — because it could violate our Eighth Amendment protections against “excessive fines.” In fact, that’s exactly what his lawyers at the Institute for Justice (who are helping him for free) are arguing.

Yep. According to Bargil, the Founding Fathers “recognized that the ability to fine is the ability to cripple,” that “it’s one of the ways, other than incarceration, that government can really oppress.”

Honestly, if this instance were not a case of “excessive fines,” I certainly don’t know what would be. Too-tall grass might be a little ugly looking, but I highly doubt even the most stuck-up Dunedin residents would say that an appropriate punishment for the, um, perpetrator (?) would be to fine him so badly that he deserves to lose his home.

What’s more, I am almost certain that the courts will agree. In January 2018, in a case called Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court ruled that local and state governments must comply with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines,” which The Atlantic called “a historic precedent against policing for profit,” because, before that case, “the excessive-fines clause in the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment had languished in obscurity.”

With our rights in that area recently reaffirmed, I would guess that what happened to Ficken is definitely going to turn out to be illegal. After all, as Bargil pointed out, the city could have simply hired someone to cut the grass and sent Ficken a bill — and, using math, charging someone $30,000 or his home to solve a problem that could have been solved for less than a couple hundred bucks is the definition of “excessive.” It’s clear that the city was using the fines not because it was dealing with some sort of atrocity that it could not deal with any other way, but simply as a way to take cash from a resident who happened to be struggling with so much loss in his personal life.

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