DUNEDIN, Fla. (WFLA) — A Dunedin man’s battle with officials over excessive fines was lost on another front after a federal judge ruled in favor of the city. However, the man said he’ll appeal the ruling.
James Ficken, of Dunedin, has fought off thousands of dollars of fines since 2015 when the city started issuing $500 fines per day as a result of “high grass” in his yard. Ficken and his attorneys, he is represented by the Institute for Justice, argued in court that the fines were excessive.
Now, an 11th Circuit federal judge has ruled in Dunedin’s favor, allowing their fines of almost $30,000 to proceed against Ficken. The Dunedin resident said previously that the fines could cost him his house.
The Institute for Justice, a non-profit “public interest law firm,” released a statement on Friday saying the $30,000 was excessive.
“If a $30,000 fine for not mowing your lawn isn’t excessive, what is?” IJ Attorney Andrew Ward said. “A city or state cannot pass an unconstitutional law, and argue that because it is the law, it’s constitutional.”
However, 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.
IJ said when Ficken returned home in mid-July of that year, he found out 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.
According to IJ, Ficken discovered the city was fining 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.'” Ficken reportedly cut the grass immediately after, but the city still billed him for the almost $30,000.
Still, he was fined daily for nearly three months. Due to a previous warning from 2015, Dunedin officials classified Ficken as a “repeat offender” according to IJ, leading to the immediate penalties. 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.
When the city followed through, Ficken filed a lawsuit, represented by IJ. While the 11th Circuit Court judge ruled that the fine could proceed, Ficken said he will appeal to a higher court.
“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. “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.”