Florida man must pay nearly $30K in fines for tall grass, federal judge rules


DUNEDIN, Fla. (WFLA) — A Florida man’s battle with officials over his unkempt grass was lost on another front after a federal judge ruled in favor of the city that fined him nearly $30,000 for failing to mow the lawn.

James Ficken, of Dunedin, has fought off thousands of dollars of fines after city officials started issuing daily penalties in May 2018 as a result of “high grass” in his yard. Ficken and his attorneys with the Institute for Justice had previously argued in court that the fines were excessive, but the City of Dunedin countered that Ficken’s overgrown grass could “draw snakes, rats or other vermin” and potentially decrease property values, per a 2021 court decision.

On Thursday, an 11th Circuit federal judge again ruled in Dunedin’s favor, allowing their fines of almost $30,000 to proceed against Ficken. Ficken had previously said the fines could cost him his house.

He also said he’ll be appealing the latest ruling.

The Institute for Justice, a non-profit “public interest law firm,” released a statement on Friday, saying the penalties for Ficken’s violations were excessive.

“If a $30,000 fine for not mowing your lawn isn’t excessive, what is?” Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said. “A city or state cannot pass an unconstitutional law, and argue that because it is the law, it’s constitutional.”

The federal court disagreed. In their decision, the court said Florida statutes allow the fines for repeated violations of local ordinances and municipal code.

Ficken was fined starting in May 2018 when he was traveling outside of Florida to sell his late mother’s home. His lawyers said he returned home in mid-July of that year, and learned that the man he’d hired to cut his grass had unexpectedly died, and the grass had grown higher than the 10-inch height allowed by Dunedin city code.

Ficken discovered the city was planning to fine him close to $29,000 “by sheer happenstance, when a code inspector making near-daily visits to track his fines told him he would be getting ‘a big bill,’” his legal team said.

Ficken cut the grass immediately after, his attorney said, but the city still billed him almost $30,000.

Ficken had incurred daily fines for nearly three months between May and August 2018. Due to a previous warning from 2015, Dunedin officials classified Ficken as a “repeat offender,” which meant he could be immediately penalized with up to $500 in fines per day, according to the Institute for Justice.

After telling officials he didn’t have the money to pay that amount, they gave him 15 days to settle up, or they’d foreclose on his house. They later voted to foreclose, the law firm said.

Ficken now says he’ll appeal the latest federal court ruling, calling it a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. (“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”)

“I’m astounded the court agreed the city could fine me $500 per day, without my knowledge, and then try to take my house — all to settle a bill for tall grass,” said Ficken, in a statement included with a media release issued by the Institute for Justice. “The court’s ruling is outrageous. If this can happen to me it can happen to anyone. That just can’t be right, and I’m looking forward to continuing my fight.”

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