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When Fines Shock The Conscience

Her situation was sympathetic, and perhaps good neighbors would either have been more helpful or, at least, less antagonistic. But then, many homeowners know how that one house down the block falls into disrepair and brings down the neighborhood. Much as you can feel empathetic toward the troubles that one person is facing, you can also understand why others who maintain their property, both for the sake of appearances and property values, expect their neighbors to do the same.

Sandy Martinez was that one person whose neglect of her property brought down the neighborhood. Why her neighbors didn’t lend a hand is unknown. Maybe there was a feeling of animosity between them. Maybe they were just selfish neighbors, concerned only for their own property. Maybe Martinez was just a problem neighbor and the others had enough of her problems becoming their problems. But when the fines for her neglect reached $165,000, things went too far.

A Florida judge yesterday ruled against a Lantana homeowner who faces more than $165,000 in fines for three minor code violations that harmed no one. Sandy Martinez, who is represented by the Institute for Justice (I.J.), argued that the financially crippling demand, which stems from driveway cracks, a storm-damaged fence, and cars that were parked partially on her own lawn, violates the Florida Constitution’s ban on excessive fines and its guarantee of due process. But Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Luis Delgado granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the fines were not “grossly disproportionate.”

It wasn’t that Martinez was fined that monumental sum overnight, but as code violations and the song go, day by day.

Martinez’s debt to the city began accumulating in 2013, when she was cited for cracks in her driveway. For a single mother with a modest income who was living from one paycheck to another, the cost of laying a new driveway was hard to manage. But in the meantime, daily fines of $75 continued to accrue, eventually reaching a total of $16,125 with interest—”far greater than the cost of an entirely new driveway,” she notes in the lawsuit that she filed against the city in February 2021.

Regardless of whether you’re of the view that a cracked driveway is the sort of thing in need of regulation, and fines to compel a homeowner to make repairs, that was ordinance in Lantana. Owning a home costs money, not just for the purchase but for its ongoing maintenance, and the cost of things like a new driveway can be expensive but it’s part of the gig. That Martinez couldn’t afford it isn’t the real question. If the costs associated with homeownership are greater than one can manage, then perhaps homeownership was not right for her.

In 2015, Martinez was cited for a fence that had been knocked down by a storm. Again, the repairs necessary to bring her into compliance were more expensive than she could immediately afford. While she waited for her insurance company to pay her claim for the fence, daily fines of $125 accumulated, eventually hitting a total of $47,375 with interest—”several times the cost of the repair and substantially more than the cost of a completely new fence,” according to her complaint.

Math suggests that the fence was down for more than a year (it’s unclear when and how interest kicks in), and the fines only start after the inspector first issues the violation, which generally happens only after some neighbor calls the inspector because the problem remains unabated.

As Martinez’s complaint notes, “parking on one’s own front yard space, even a tiny bit, is illegal in Lantana.” The penalty is $250 per day and fines continue to accrue until a city inspector verifies that the violation has been corrected. Although Martinez says she promptly fixed the parking issue by making sure no car was touching her grass and left a voicemail message with the code enforcement office requesting a compliance check, no inspector came by. Unbeknownst to her, the fines continued to accumulate for more than a year.

Given that Martinez had already been the target of code compliance for years by 2019, when the car problem arose, combined with the $250 per day fine, perhaps she should have done more than leave a voicemail. Then again, perhaps given that cars are movable, the burden should be on the code inspector to document every day of violation. If Martinez contends that she remedied the violation, then it’s the inspector’s responsibility to prove the violation continued until it reached $101,750.

But none of this is really the point, as Sandy Martinez sought to get out from under the enormous burden of the accumulated fines. And she was given a chance.

In view of Martinez’s financial circumstances, the city eventually offered to let her settle her bill by paying $25,000. But at the time, Greenberg says, that was “over half of her annual income,” and “that offer was only good for about three months.” Because “she didn’t come up with that $25,000 in three months,” he says, the city again demanded the full amount of $165,250.

But if Martinez couldn’t pay the reduced settlement amount, what were the chances she could pay the full amount? A hearing ensued where Martinez could have challenged the fines. She didn’t bother to attend.

Those fines are not excessive, Delgado ultimately concludes in his 10-page order. But before he addresses that question, he faults Martinez for failing to attend code enforcement hearings. Greenberg notes that the hearings were scheduled “on weeknights at about 5:30 p.m.,” which made them difficult for Martinez to attend given her work and parenting responsibilities. In any case, he says, the only point of the hearings was to determine whether the violations had occurred, which Martinez did not contest.

Efforts to rationalize how and why Martinez found herself in this situation are not unsympathetic, but at the same time, are the ordinary circumstances that most people, most homeowners, are constrained to face and deal with. The only remaining question is whether the total amount of the fine, $165,250, is constitutionally excessive. While the deterrent and coercive value of fines is one thing, there reaches a point where the amount is so outrageous as to be arbitrary and capricious. This fine shocks the conscience, no matter how bad a neighbor Martinez might have been.

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