DUNEDIN, Fla. – Kristi Allen read the letter and thought it had to be a scam.
It said she owed $92,600 in fines for overgrown vegetation and a stagnant swimming pool at a house she no longer owned. She must pay in two weeks, the letter said, and it hinted that she could be sued if she didn’t. Including interest charges and other fees, her debt swelled to $103,559, about twice her yearly income.
Three months later, in late 2018, the city of Dunedin sued to collect, setting off another legal fight over how local governments use their power to impose heavy fines on citizens. What Allen, 38, a mother of two, thought had to be a scam turned into a nightmare she said could bankrupt her family.
“I haven’t woken up from it yet,” she said.
Dunedin, a small seaside city outside Tampa, cracks down on code violations, saddling homeowners with massive fines while its revenue grows. In 5½ years, the city has collected nearly $3.6 million in fines – sometimes tens of thousands at a time – for violating laws that prohibit grasses taller than 10 inches, recreational vehicles parked on streets at certain hours or sidings and bricks that don’t match.
The Supreme Court ruled in February that local governments can’t impose excessive fines. The decision is among the first constraints by the federal government on how much money cities and states can charge people for everything from speeding to overgrown lawns. But the court did not say what should be considered excessive, leaving local governments and residents with a question: How much is too much?
Fines are a reliable source of revenue for cash-starved cities, and they have become a big – and rapidly growing – business for local governments. States, cities and counties collected $15.3 billion in fines and forfeitures in 2016, according to the most recent financial records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a 44% jump from a decade earlier.
The Supreme Court’s decision should be a warning for local governments that trap people in a never-ending cycle of debt, said Lisa Foster, a former Justice Department official who runs the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group. But the ruling has not reined in some of the most aggressive practices, in Dunedin and elsewhere.