Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted
- 8th Amendment to The Constitution
Sixty-nine year old Florida resident Jim Ficken may lose his house simply for failing to mow his lawn. The city of Dunedin, Florida has burdened him with $30,000 in fines because he let his grass grow over 10 inches for two consecutive months last year. Jim was unable to mow his lawn due to extenuating circumstances outside of his control. Last summer, he left town to arrange his mother's estate and paid a friend to mow his lawn while he was gone. However, his friend died, without his knowledge, and the grass continued to grow unabated. City Bureaucrats began assessing fines of $500 per day for each day that the grass remained over 10 inches tall. By the time Jim came home, the city had assessed $30,000 in fines. Jim mowed his lawn to remedy the code violation and tried to negotiate a smaller penalty, but the city refused to budge. Since Jim is retired and lives on a fixed income, he cannot afford to pay the absurd penalty, so the city has decided to foreclose on his home, potentially rendering him homeless. Imagine being such a draconian psychopath that you would you force someone to live on the streets just because they failed to cut their grass for reasons outside of their control.
This case needs no further explanation; it is obviously absurd to evict a homeowner from their own house for failing to maintain a certain aesthetic, but running extortion rackets is what governments do best. Apparently, this particular city has been able to run one of the most successful
code enforcement rackets in the country as they've been able to increase revenue from code violation fines 20x over the past decade from a measly $34,000 in 2007 to an impressive $1.3 million in 2018, which is probably the majority of their revenue. Despite the absurdity of the penalty, Jim does not have a guaranteed victory here. The Supreme Court has struck down similar schemes as unconstitutional, but they have never set a clear standard for excessive fines and fees. They have only recommended that it should not exceed a person's ability to pay, which most municipal governments routinely ignore by seizing property and often jailing residents who cannot afford to pay the fines levied against them. The Supreme court also has a poor track record defending property rights; they allow law enforcement agencies to take people's property without securing a criminal conviction and allow eminent domain takings of property for economic development purposes. Allowing this injustice to occur is not outside the range of possibility.