Lantana, FLorida, Woman Fined $100,000 For Parking On Her Own Driveway.

Sandy Martinez of Lantana, Florida is a working mother with three kids. Her 81 year old mother mother and her sister live with her in a home she bought in 2004.

Two of Sandy’s children are of employment age, and so along with her sister, there are 4 working people in the house who drive to work in separate cars. As one can imagine, the four cars make for an interesting parking situation.

Sometimes when they park, the cars may have had two wheels that are off of the driveway. There is no doubt that the car is mostly on the driveway, just one side of the wheels are off of paved surface.

The City of Lantana says that is a violation of the city codes and has been fining Martinez $250 a day to the point where with penalties and interest, Martinez now owes the City of Lantana over $100,000 dollars.

And that is not all.

After a storm, a section of Martinez’s fence was blown over. She submitted a claim to her insurance company for repair of the fence. The insurance company has been slow to respond to the claim, and the City of Lantana has fined Martinez more than $47,000 for the fence.

In addition, Martinez was cited for her driveway having a crack in it. That fine was over $16,000 dollars.

All in all, the City of Lantana claims Martinez owes them over $165,000 dollars and has placed a lien on her home which means she cannot effectively sell the property or leave it to her children if she passes away.

Along with the Institute for Justice, Martinez is suing the City under the Florida and US Constitution which prevents excessive fines.

Sandy is tired of being financially abused by Lantana. And thankfully, the Florida Constitution—which forbids “excessive fines”—protects her from these crippling sanctions.[1] That protection is well-grounded in Western legal history: It dates all the way back to Magna Carta in 1215. So, if a court agrees that the fines of more than $165,000 are “excessive,” it will declare the fines unconstitutional. And to the extent that the state statute and town ordinances governing code enforcement authorize fines of this magnitude, Sandy is also challenging those provisions as unconstitutional.

The law in this area is surprisingly undeveloped. Indeed, despite their deep historical roots, protections against excessive fines—in both the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution—have until recently laid mostly dormant. As a result, the question of when a fine becomes “excessive” has remained largely unresolved by the courts. In fact, Florida’s Supreme Court hasn’t meaningfully addressed the issue since 1922, when it held that a fine which “shocks the conscience” is unconstitutionally excessive.[2] But other states in recent years have updated their test for what makes a fine “excessive,” announcing clear frameworks that require consideration of many individualized factors.

It is time that Florida courts address important questions that other state high courts have wrangled with of late. For example, California’s Supreme Court has instructed that courts must consider the aggregate fine imposed—not just the recurring, daily fine—in determining whether a fine is excessive.[3] That is a significant development. If such an interpretation were applied in Sandy’s case, for instance, it might mean the difference between paying a one-time fine of $250 versus a fine of more than $100,000 for the same minor parking offense. And Indiana’s Supreme Court—in a case litigated by IJ—has been one of several to hold that the offender’s ability to pay a fine must be considered when weighing whether a fine is unconstitutionally excessive. Legal tradition has long recognized that government fines cannot financially ruin an offender, and states like Indiana have ensured this ancient principle is part of their modern protection.

While the unconscionable amount of fines Sandy faces for such trivial violations ought to easily satisfy Florida’s “shocks the conscience” standard for excessiveness, her case is ultimately about more than just getting Lantana off her back. It’s also about getting Florida’s courts to clarify that the state constitution’s protection from excessive fines is viable and robust. This includes ensuring that Florida courts consider whether a fine is excessive based on the total amount imposed, rather than just one day’s worth of fines. And it includes incorporating the longstanding principle that fines cannot leave Floridians completely destitute.

The City of Lantana, for their part, is calling Martinez a “recidivist” and demanding she pay up:

Last August, Lantana agreed to slash the obligations facing Martinez to $25,000 as long as she paid by mid-December. Martinez said she didn’t have the money. so the fines went unpaid and reverted to the original amount.

“It is clear that she has dug quite a bit of a hole for herself, but it’s disingenuous to try and assert that the circumstances she finds herself in is the town’s fault,” [Lantana Town Attorney Max] Lohman said.

Lohman said that Lantana could have legally charged Martinez a maximum of $500 a day for the parking violation because it was a repeat offense, but the town tries to “temper justice with mercy.”

Because of the various liens against her 1,500-square foot home, Martinez said she couldn’t sell if she wanted to. She “stresses” about dying and being unable to leave the home to her three children, which include a 1-year-old daughter. Martinez said she is a single mom.

“This has effectively turned Sandy into a renter in her own home,” Bargil said.

Martinez, Lohman countered, is not a victim of “draconian regulations” or burdened by rules that don’t apply to her neighbors.

“This is not a persecution of Ms. Martinez,” Lohman said. “It’s simply the town enforcing its code.”

We would argue that any “code” that fines people $100,000 for parking on their own property while trying to earn a living and stay under a roof is not a code worth following.

Lohman’s statement of the town trying to “temper justice with mercy” is belied by the town’s own actions.

For example, even though Martinez says she has stopped parking with two wheels off of the driveway, the town requires that for the daily code violations to end, compliance must be witnessed by a code enforcement official. That isn’t happening, so the fines continued and Martinez has no way of stopping them. As for the offer of the City to cut the fines to $25,000, how many people who are living day to day, paycheck to paycheck, and in these pandemic times have $25,000 in the bank to write a check to the government?

We will never understand how City codes make criminals out of people on their own property when the alleged violations don’t affect anyone else.

In this case, you have a hard working family, and the people who have jobs in City Hall seem to be intent on making the lives of citizens a living hades for a violation that doesn’t affect anyone else.

This is the excat type of case that the Institute for Justice takes on, and they do so for free. Supported only by donations, the IJ does great work and fights for people when the government oversteps its legal and moral bounds.

This particular story hits one of our staff members hard.

Their mother lives in another city up north. In order to keep City workers employed, the City passed what came to be called the “Sidewalk Sam” law which required citizens to patch or replace sections of sidewalk that had cracks. There are several issues with the ordinance itself. First, the ordinance says the head of the Public Works Department will issue violations of the code. That head is a very specific person. The ordinance does not say “issue or shall cause to be issued” the violations. So when the City sent minions out to issue the citations, they had no legal authority to do so. Secondly, there was no definition as to what a “crack” is. While that sounds silly, the fact of the matter is that concrete often gets surface cracks which does not affect the underlying structure of the concrete. As the City’s stated goal was to make the sidewalks safer, these micro cracks are not something that people trip over.

The biggest issue is that the sidewalk belongs to the City – not to the homeowner. The property deed and the City’s own records show that they and they alone own the sidewalk.

In 2013, the mother of our staff member was cited for having a crack in the sidewalk. The mother, through our staff member appealed the citation via certified letter as is allowed by law.

In 2018, the City came out and dug up the sidewalk and replaced it. They then billed the homeowner by sending a bill in late 2019. As per the law, the homeowner again appealed the bill.

That appeal is based on several things. First, the appeal cites the fact that if the homeowner did the work themselves or hired a contractor to do the work, they had to certify the strength of the concrete used at 4000 psi. The homeowner made a public records request for the concrete and found it was only 2000 psi. In addition, the concrete was loaded onto a truck at 8:00 and poured at 3 PM, well past the time that the concrete would have gone “off.”

The quality of work was so bad that the workers left a mound of concrete in the middle of the repair. It is a tripping hazard, especially when it snows. In addition, the City workers dug up the driveway of a neighbor (same right of way and not on the property of the neighbor) and in doing so, cut the electrical line to the street lamps. Street lamps are contracted out by the City, so the company that maintains the street lamps came out, found the problem, dug up the newly poured concrete, fixed the wire, and left. The City then started fining the homeowner for the cracked driveway.

As to the appeals of the original citation and the fees, the City lost the initial appeal and says that without it, they could legally bill the homeowner. (In other words, if the City loses the paperwork, you’re out of luck.) As to the bill for the sidewalk, the City has started to charge interest on the bill which has not been paid. Due to COVID, the City is refusing to hold any hearings – even electronically – and has told the homeowner they should pay the bill and then if and when the City holds a hearing, and the homeowner wins, the City would refund the homeowner the money within a year.

Maybe that is why the Martinez case and the City of Lantana hits so close to home to us.

The battle over our staffer’s homestead has been going on for 8 years and there is no resolution in sight.

And the City – the City which is funded by taxes paid for by the people – doesn’t care. All the City workers have jobs. They all were getting paid.

Why should they care?

One Response to “Lantana, FLorida, Woman Fined $100,000 For Parking On Her Own Driveway.”

  1. Don Jordan says:

    Institute for Justice is a
    rock solid group of lawyers who protect folks like this. They deserve our full support. We have done so financially for several years.Please consider doing so too.