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Fine More Than House is Worth

August 17th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was visiting Milwaukee this past weekend when I came across an interesting article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about a case in Florida where a district attorney in northern Wisconsin was litigating with the city of Fort Lauderdale over fines in excess of $700,000 on property worth only $200,000.  His mother had owned the property prior to her death and it had incurred damage due to a hurricane and eventually she ended up with enormous fines due to its condition and the work done without permits.  The son contended the large fines were excessive but the the federal court of appeals recently disagreed with him and stated:

In this case, the fine is properly characterized as a $150 per day fine for each day their house was not in compliance with the Fort Lauderdale Code. The Moustakises do not allege in their Complaint that a $150 per day fine for violating the Code is excessive, only that the cumulative fine of $700,000, which is more than the value of the house violating the Code, is excessive. But the $700,000 fine was created by the Moustakises’ failure to bring the house into compliance with the Code each day for 14 years. Rather than being grossly disproportionate to the offense, the $700,000 fine is, literally, directly proportionate to the offense. The Moustakises have not alleged any facts that demonstrate that the lien and underlying fines are excessive under either the Florida Constitution or the United States Constitution.
You can find the case at Moutsakis v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 2009 WL 2004183(2009) and an article about the case at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/fort-lauderdale/sfl-moustakis-code-08,0,4472967.story.  My concern with this case is not the size of the fines but the fact that this went on for 14 years without compliance.  If people aren’t motivated by large fines, what good are they, except for collecting the lien?  The building with its violations still stands.  I don’t know if the city also filed an action in chancery to force compliance or demolition but I prefer the contempt of court route if it becomes necessary to gain compliance or some type of court order that can be enforced and bring about compliance.
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