|Excessive fines? Florida city hits homeowners with massive penalties|
DUNEDIN — Kristi Allen read the letter and thought it had to be a scam. It said
she owed $92,600 in fines for overgrown vegetation and a stagnant swimming pool
at a house she no longer owned. She must pay in two weeks, the letter said,
hinting that she could be sued if she didn’t. Including interest charges and
other fees, her debt swelled to $103,559, about twice her yearly income. Three
months later, in late 2018, the city of Dunedin sued to collect, setting off
another legal fight over how local governments use their power to impose heavy
fines on citizens. What Allen, 38, a mother of two, thought had to be a scam
turned into a nightmare she said could bankrupt her family. “I haven’t woken up
from it yet,” she said.
The Supreme Court’s decision should be a wake-up call for local governments that trap people in a never-ending cycle of debt, said Lisa Foster, a former Justice Department official who runs the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group. But the ruling has not reined in some of the most aggressive practices, in Dunedin and elsewhere. Dunedin officials declined to be interviewed but insisted through a spokesman that the fines they impose were neither excessive nor abusive. Dunedin’s code enforcement policies are meant to “protect the integrity of neighborhoods and the quality of the community,” spokesman Ron Sachs said. City and county records show that at least 33 homeowners owed the city $20,000 or more in fines as of May. That tally does not include dozens of bank- and company-owned houses with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of code violations. In some cases, the fines seem to have more to do with aesthetics than public safety.
The city fined a man nearly $30,000 because of a “chronic” overgrown yard. It fined a couple $31,000 for fixing their roof without a permit after a tree fell on it during a hurricane. “They’re using a shotgun to kill a mouse,” said Bill Prescott, who was fined $43,000 because of an inoperative car and a pile of dried leaves in his front yard and plants that grew over the street. Prescott, who lives with his wife in Tallahassee, said he became ill last year and couldn’t make the long drive to Dunedin to maintain their second home. Fines of $250 a day piled up without his knowledge, Prescott said. “It just leaves me scratching,” he said. ‘Almost Gestapo-like’ Allen moved to Dunedin in 2005 to be with her boyfriend, Keith, who later became her husband. She bought a bungalow-style house on the same street where he was raised. It had a swimming pool and a backyard next to a popular hiking trail, so for someone who loves swimming and the outdoors, it seemed perfect. They planted palm trees in the yard and restored the pool that had sat empty for years.
Then the financial crisis hit. Allen, a radiologic technologist, took a pay cut
and lost her house in the wave of foreclosures that washed over Florida. She
signed an agreement with U.S. Bank National Association allowing the foreclosure
and moved out. She thought Dunedin was behind her. In early 2014, three years
after Allen moved out, a code inspector came to the house, which had been
vacant. Brown palm fronds littered the overgrown backyard. A neighbor told the
inspector that something dead may have been rotting there. The swimming pool had
turned into a bright green, mosquito-infested cesspool. City officials sent
notices of the problems to Allen, who was still listed as the homeowner in
county property records. Then they started fining her $100 a day. The letters
mailed to Allen were returned undeliverable with no forwarding address. The city
kept fining her anyway.
Allen isn’t the only homeowner to accuse Dunedin of overzealous code enforcement
practices and say they were blindsided by a huge fine that accumulated for
years. Others, such as Guillaume Picot, said they were fined daily even as they
tried to fix the violations. After a tree smashed a corner of the roof of
Picot’s rental property during Hurricane Irma two years ago, he bought $300
worth of wood and other supplies at Home Depot and fixed the damage himself. The
city fined him $200 a day for fixing the roof without a permit. The fines racked
up while Picot scrambled to find a locally licensed roofer who would sign off on
his repairs. He and his wife owe about $31,000. “They’re not human with their
decisions,” he said of Dunedin officials.
In a performance review from 2015, a former Dunedin code enforcement officer, Michael Kepto, wrote that his goal was to “continue to be a financial asset to the city by the amounts of liens collected.” Kepto said city officials never asked him to pursue more liens to generate revenue. He said the city was inundated with vacant properties that banks had foreclosed at the time he wrote the performance review. Dunedin expects to make a little more than $1 million this year from fines and forfeitures. That’s about five times as much as the city made a decade ago. ‘Deprivation and punishment’ The ways in which cities levy fines has been under scrutiny since at least 2015, when Ferguson, Missouri’s law enforcement became a national symbol of racial bias in policing after the shooting death of a young black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white police officer. The Justice Department cleared the officer of wrongdoing but published a scathing report describing the city’s municipal court system as a moneymaking enterprise that trapped poor and predominantly black residents in an endless spiral of debt and incarceration. Hard-to-pay fines spring up seemingly everywhere, as cities look for ways to punish violations and collect money without raising taxes.
In Miami, traffic violations usually add up to hundreds of dollars. Collection agencies also add a 40% surcharge, meaning someone with several tickets can owe fines of $3,000 to $7,000. Doraville, Georgia, fined one homeowner $1,000 for stacking firewood in his backyard, according to a lawsuit that accuses the city of aggressive ticketing practices. A government newsletter said in 2015 that Doraville’s court system, which collects the fines, brings in “over $3 million annually” and “contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.” “What we have seen is an increasing tendency of municipalities to criminalize, or at least heavily fine, behavior that not many people would describe as bad,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fees and Fines Justice Center. “Letting your lawn grow too high arguably is not the most serious offense.” Charles Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, said most fines, which are generally a small portion of local governments’ revenue, are in place to correct bad behavior. “The interest of government is not to collect revenue from bad behavior. It’s to get compliance,” he said. Fines in some cases have become so big that they make it impossible for people to pay, let alone fix the violations that got them in trouble, said Robert Eckard, a Tampa lawyer representing another Dunedin homeowner. “It’s like setting someone up for failure,” Eckard said. “It’s deprivation and punishment for people who don’t have the income to remedy the problem.” Last year, the chief justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court condemned governments’ reliance on fines to make money. “Courts are centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in a letter to her fellow judges urging them not to succumb to pressure to generate revenue through the court system.
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court took a step to upend cities and states’ ability to decide for themselves when fines are appropriate. That case started when prosecutors in Indiana went to court to demand that a man convicted of a minor drug charge forfeit his $42,000 Land Rover. The car was worth four times as much as the maximum possible fine for the crime, but the government’s attorneys argued that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines did not apply to cities and states. The Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled unanimously that the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “excessive fines,” restricts the fees state and local governments can impose. “Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield through Anglo-American history for good reason,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “Such fines undermine other liberties.” The Supreme Court’s decision alone will not stop municipalities’ aggressive practices, said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who oversaw the Ferguson investigation. Instead, she said, it will take more lawsuits to flesh out the limit for what constitutes an excessive fine. One lawsuit was filed in May against Dunedin.
The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties group, sued the city after it fined a homeowner nearly $30,000 over an overgrown lawn. City officials, who described the homeowner as a chronic violator, also sought to foreclose on his house. The ability to impose heavy fines and to foreclose on people’s property “are awesome powers” that should be used against institutional landlords, not homeowners, said Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. ‘Look at who you’re hurting’ Last year, four days before Christmas, Allen received another letter from the city. It told her she had been sued. “How much are they suing you for?” Allen recalled her husband asking. “$103,” she responded, giving a shortened version of the debt she could not pay. Their son overheard and offered to use his own savings to pay his mother’s debt. “He’s like, ‘Oh, Mommy, I have $103. I’ll give you $103,’ ” Allen said, her voice shaking and her eyes welling up with tears as she remembered the day Christmas was ruined. The city argued that Allen should pay, even as it acknowledged that her mortgage lender had taken control of the house.
Dunedin’s attorneys cited a state statute saying the lien the city placed on the house where the violation occurred applies to other personal property Allen owned. Hillard, Allen’s attorney, said forcing her to pay violated her right to due process because she didn’t know the violations even existed. Liens, Hillard argued, are tied to properties, not to a person.
Allen and her husband, a garage door technician, own a house just outside of Dunedin. They had planned to buy a new house and perhaps replace an old car. They had planned to save for college for their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. None of that is happening, Allen said, because the city’s lawsuit “totally crippled us.” To defend herself, Allen has spent thousands of dollars in legal expenses, each bill has grown bigger than her monthly mortgage. She said she has started paying for bills, such as her children’s summer camp, with her credit card. Soon, she’ll do the same with attorney fees, which she pays in installments. If she loses, Allen will be liable not only for the fines but also for Dunedin’s attorney fees. The city could garnish her paychecks. “I need my paycheck to live, for my children, for my house, for my car,” Allen said. She said she finds it hard to concentrate at work because she’s so worried she won’t be able to pay her lawyer, let alone for her children’s education. “I know it’s not personal to them. But it’s personal to me and the other people that they are doing this to,” Allen said, referring to Dunedin officials. “Take a look at who you’re hurting and how you’re hurting them. Is it worth it?”