If you care about property rights, government overreach, and common sense, the story of Jim Ficken just might make you very angry.  

Ficken, a 69-year-old retiree, is facing loss of his house because, partly through an accident, his grass was not cut.

Ficken arranged to have his grass cut while he was away taking care of the affairs associated with the death of his mother.

When the man Ficken had hired to mow the yard died, the grass grew beyond the ten inches the city permits. Dunedin, Florida fined Ficken to the tune of $500 a day for the overgrown grass, a fine of which Ficken was apparently unaware. The bill mounted to $30,000.  

Here is what happened, according to the Institute of Justice, which is representing Ficken:

When Jim got back two weeks later, on July 19, he had no idea he was incurring $500 in fines each day. He didn’t get a letter or a phone call from the city. But he could see the grass was too long, and he cut almost all of it a few days later. Unfortunately, his old mower malfunctioned in the process, and he didn’t cut it perfectly.

Another month passed. Without knowing about the fine, and with a broken mower, Jim hadn’t mowed. Other cities might have just mowed the lawn and billed him. But Dunedin didn’t, and the fines kept adding up.

Finally, around August 20, the officer arrived to look at the grass, and—because Jim happened to be standing outside at just the right moment—hinted at what was happening. He told Jim there would be a “big bill from the city.” Jim responded the way any decent citizen would: he immediately went out, bought a brand-new lawnmower and cut the grass.

On August 22, the officer returned and confirmed the grass was short enough. Still, he told Jim there was going to be a hearing about the violation two weeks later, on September 4. With no idea he was facing a $23,500 fine, Jim asked to reschedule the hearing because he had already purchased a plane ticket to return to South Carolina to address additional issues related to his mother’s estate.

The city refused. Jim returned to South Carolina, missed the hearing and figured that, at most, he would have to eat a few hundred dollars in fines. He mistakenly believed that his fine would be less than the cost of rebooking his flight. 

In May, the city voted to foreclose Ficken’s house.

The Institute of Justice is arguing that Dunedin’s foreclosure violates the Eighth Amendment, which guards against cruel and unusual punishment and “excessive fines.”

It is easy to imagine that, as more states and municipalities live beyond their means, more fund-raising schemes will threaten citizens and our property rights.

Hat tip: John Stossel