DUNEDIN — A property owner who was assessed $30,000 in fines and threatened with the foreclosure of his home because of not cutting his grass has lost a federal court challenge to those fines.
Middle District of Florida Judge Charlene Honeywell ruled against James Ficken, who was assessed those fines while in South Carolina, dealing with his mother’s estate in 2018. It’s not his primary residence but he owns the property through a trust.
“I was out of town when code enforcement officials first noticed my grass was too tall,” Ficken said. “They came back almost every day to record the violation, but never notified me that I was on the hook for fines. By the time I found out, I owed them tens of thousands of dollars. Then, they refused to reduce the fines and voted to authorize the foreclosure of my home.”
Judge Honeywell ruled that the fines were justified, given Ficken’s status as a repeat offender (there was an uncut grass incident in 2015), and said that he hadn’t exhausted his appeals to local or state authorities. After the 2015 incident, according to the court, the code enforcement board warned Ficken that if there was a recurrence, it could start levying fines of $500 per day. The ruling quoted Florida statutes saying cities are not required to give a recurring violator notice to correct the problem.
Ficken is represented by the Institute for Justice, which advocates and litigates on behalf of private property and limited government. It was founded in the 1980s with a donation from industrialist Charles Koch. His lawyer, Andrew Ward, says the ruling is “wrong on the law” and he plans to appeal. “The Constitution protects against fines that are excessive or ‘grossly disproportional’ to an offense…If $30,000 for tall grass in Florida is not excessive, it is hard to imagine what is.”
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