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Code Enforcement Fines Leads To Foreclosure Of Florida Home.

Jim Ficken is a 69 year old man living (at least for the time being) in the City of Dunedin, which is on the west coast of Florida.

In May of 2015, Ficken was away from his Dunedin home tending to his sick mother in South Carolina. While he was away, City code enforcement officers cited Ficken for having grass that was too long. Ficken was not fined for the long grass, and when he returned home, he cut the grass. However, even though he corrected the issue, if during the next 5 years he received another citation, he would be considered a “repeat offended” which allowed the City to double any fines.

Ficken’s mother died in 2016, and in 2018 Ficken went to South Carolina to handle his mother’s estate, which included the sale of her condominium. In his absence, Ficken hired friend and handyman Russ Kellum.

Unbeknownst to Ficken while he was in South Carolina, Kellum died.

The grass height again became an issue.

The City cited him for long grass starting on July 5, 2018 and also started fining him the sum of $500 per day. The fine was doubled that of the regular fine because he was a “repeat offender.” So instead of being fined $250 a day, Ficken was being fined $500 a day. Even worse, the City never notified him that he was being fined.

On July 19, 2018, Ficken returned from South Carolina and tried to cut the grass but his lawnmower broke. By that time, the fines of which he was unaware, were up to over $7,000. On August 20, 2019, a Code Enforcement Officer stopped by Ficken’s home and said that Ficken was facing a large fine. Ficken, who is on a fixed income, went and bought a lawn mower and cut the grass on August 21, which, coincidentally, was the day a letter arrived from the City of Dunedin saying Ficken owed $23,500 in fines. This was the first time Ficken had been told he was being fined.

The letter also said that a hearing would be held on September 4, concerning the fines. Unfortunately, Ficken had to return to South Carolina and asked the City twice to postpone the hearing as he would be out of town attending to his mother’s estate.

The City denied the request and held the hearing in his absence. The decision was that he would have to pay the fines.

However, while he was away, the City again cited him for the length of the grass starting August 31. And again, the City failed to notify him of the accruing fines. By the time the grass was taking care of, Ficken had another $5000 in fines.

On September 18, 2018 the City then proceeded to place two liens on Ficken’s home. The first for $24,454.36, inclusive of initial interest, attorney’s fees, and recording costs. The second for $5,379.14, inclusive of initial interest, attorney’s fees, and recording costs.

Between the two liens, the City claims Ficken owes them $29,833.50 plus interest.

If this case wasn’t at the tipping point of absurdity, it gets there now. According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Ficken,

In a letter dated February 13, 2019, the city attorney advised that “[p]ayment must be made to the City of Dunedin, care of this office, within fifteen (15) days of the date of this letter or we shall have no choice but to pursue foreclosure of the liens.” The letter further threatened that Jim would be responsible for litigation costs and attorney’s fees.

Although the February 13, 2019 letter advised Jim that the City would “have no choice but to pursue foreclosure,” there is no ordinance or statute that actually requires the City to initiate a foreclosure action in this case.

Jim’s repeated efforts to obtain an extension of time for compliance with the city attorney’s demand were rejected without a counteroffer.

[…] on May 7, 2019, the city attorney requested permission from the Board to foreclose on the House in order to recover on the liens. Permission was granted.

Because Jim does not have the money to satisfy the liens, foreclosure is imminent.

Ficken is being represented by The Institute For Justice (IJ) whom we have covered before.

The IJ is claiming that was denied due process under the Florida Declaration of Rights as he was unaware the fines were racking up against him. Ficken’s fine of almost $30,000 is excessive under the Florida Constitution as well 8th Amendment of the US Constitution.

If there is anyone who should know about excessive fines, it is the IJ.

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.

The Timbs case involved a man who purchased a Land Rover for $42,000 with money he received from his father’s life insurance policy. Timbs was later busted selling heroin from the vehicle. The statutory fines for selling heroin was a maximum of $10,000 but the State of Indiana sought to seize the Land Rover as well. The Supreme Court ruled that seizing a $42,000 vehicle is excessive when the maximum fine is $10,000.

It would certainly seem to us that a foreclosing on a house with a market value of $125,541 for less than $30,000 in fines is excessive no matter how you look at it.

So why do it? Why would Dunedin be seeking the home?

Easy.

The money:

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.

Nice work if you can get it.

You will always hear that City Code Enforcement seeks “only to bring people into compliance” and will “work with people” to do so.

This case belies that thought. Code enforcement is to many cities about money. Period. For other cities, it is telling people what they must do to their property even when there is no health or safety reasons to do so. There are simply people out there who get elected who think their job is to control your property.

Or in the case of Jim Ficken, to steal your property.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Institute for Justice is a group that often takes on cases pro bono. To do so means they rely on donations from people to keep fighting the fight in areas of commerce, free speech, private property, and education. They are well worth donating a few bucks to in order to support the outstanding work they do on cases that affect many people in this country.



One Response to “Code Enforcement Fines Leads To Foreclosure Of Florida Home.”

  1. Brad says:

    I sure hope Mr. Ficken and the Institute for Justice prevail in this case. It is not right for the city to try to take his home over this! The city has acted in bad faith. They should be ashamed of themselves!

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