July 22, 2019
By Matt Miller
How much pain can the government inflict upon a citizen in order to get its way? That question, which is controlled by the excessive fines clauses of the U.S. and most state constitutions, is front-and-center in several lawsuits currently pending in Florida. USA Today recently featured a lengthy article on one Florida city that is trying to take people’s homes over accumulated fines for tall grass and weeds.
What Dunedin, Florida, is doing to these people is indeed outrageous. The fines may “only” be around $250 per day, but they quickly accumulate into the tens-of-thousands of dollars. Homeowners are unable to pay these accumulated fines, which can lead to government liens and, ultimately, foreclosure.
That’s bad enough. But what if the fines started at $20,000 for the first offense, and escalated in $20,000 increments to $100,000 for your fifth offense? What if, instead of accumulating $30,000 in fines over a period of months, you could accumulate $300,000 in fines in just five days?
That is the situation in Miami Beach, where the Goldwater Institute represents homeowner Natalie Nichols in a case filed against the city last summer.
In Miami Beach, the fines aren’t even for overgrown weeds, which are, arguably, at least a minor nuisance for neighbors. Instead, the city imposes $20,000 to $100,000 fines for doing nothing more than renting your home on Airbnb or HomeAway. You don’t have to be running a party house. Indeed, different, longstanding laws cover actual nuisance behavior. But the city says it’s too much work to enforce those laws.
Your guests can be quiet as a church mouse and respectful of all the rules, and your very first fine will be for $20,000. Keep it up and you will—as many Miami Beach property owners have found—be facing $300,000 or more in fines. If you don’t pay, the law expressly says that the city can seize not only your rental property, but any property you own. All for doing nothing more than peacefully renting your home as a short-term rental.
This is excessive under the excessive fines clauses of both the U.S. and Florida constitutions. In legal filings, Miami Beach claims that the fines are necessary to deter wealthy property owners from renting their homes and then paying lower fine amounts as a cost of doing business. But most homeowners in the city are not ultra-wealthy. The city’s argument is tantamount to saying “we have to fine everyone $20,000 for speeding, because otherwise Ferrari owners will just pay the speeding tickets but not stop speeding.”
Well, what about the rest of us? Fortunately, the Constitution protects people from excessive fines, even if that means wealthy people might sometimes be able to pay minor penalties without worrying about it.
Fundamentally, our state and federal constitutions protect us from being fined into oblivion by the government for minor violations of the law. No matter how much we might dislike tall weeds, nobody should lose his or her home over them. And no matter how much some people might dislike the idea of home-sharing, nobody should lose his or her house for doing nothing more than peacefully renting a room to someone for the night.
Serious penalties should only be imposed for serious violations of the law. If a company knowingly dumps toxic chemicals in a river, the government can and should fine it hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more. But tall weeds, or short-term rentals, demand a lesser penalty because they are much more minor offenses. This is the kind of proportionality demanded by constitutional guarantees against excessive fines.
It is heartening to see people talking about excessive fines again. Interest in them was significantly renewed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana, which held that the protections of the Eighth Amendment apply to actions by state and local governments. But there is still much work to be done. Much as “Florida Man” regularly captures the nation’s attention for his outrageous and stupid antics, Florida cities are presenting an embarrassing example of outrageous government overreach as they weaponize fines against essentially peaceful citizens. This must end. It will end. The protections of our state and federal constitutions demand nothing less.