Opinion

The small injustices that keep me libertarian

Imagine facing a $100,000 fine for parking your own car on your own lawn

In the city of Lantana, Florida, it is illegal to park your own car on your own lawn. If you place the tires of your vehicle upon your small patch of unpaved earth, you will be fined $250. Per day.

This is what has happened to a Lantana woman named Sandy Martinez. There's no good street parking at her house, so when her car, her sister's car, and her two adult children's cars are all at her home, the space constraints sometimes put two wheels of one vehicle on the grass. For this, the city fined her more than $100,000, plus nearly $65,000 for other minor housing code violations: cracks on the driveway and a fence that got knocked down in a squall. Martinez couldn't afford to repave the driveway, which was still functional. She was waiting for insurance reimbursement to fix the fence. And she tried to resolve the parking fines only to discover, months later, they were still accumulating daily. Now her collective fines are so large she could only repay them by selling her house, but then she'd still have to pay off her mortgage, and she'd have no home. Lantana's housing code threatens to ruin her life — and for what? Driveway cracks, a delayed insurance claim, and two wheels on a lawn.

This is the kind of small injustice that keeps me libertarian. I don't mean "small" for Martinez and the uncounted millions of Americans who suffer similar harassment from their various governments every year. For them, the injustice is enormous. What Lantana has done to Martinez is spectacularly cruel and stupid. It is ludicrous this could happen in a country which imagines itself free.

But this type of injustice is small in that it is not widely visible. It is not so easily named as "mass incarceration" or "drone strikes on weddings" or "kids in cages." Most of these stories — unlike the saga Martinez is facing, which the libertarian magazine Reason covered after her case was taken by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit libertarian law firm — never make the news. They're so diverse and occasioned by so many different legal codes in so many states and towns that they're not conducive to any unified, national advocacy campaign.

Many of these injustices aren't life-ruining, as might be the case for Martinez. But they are often life-altering, and they are always maddening. They shouldn't happen, and the fact that they do happen — all the time and typically without the reparation assistance from a group like IJ — is a constant impetus for my reflexive skepticism of the state. Any organization that would do this to a woman minding her own business, trying to spend time with her family, is not my friend.

Lantana isn't unique in this regard. As IJ notes in its press release on the Martinez case, a "2017 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights revealed how municipal fines and fees abuse is a nationwide problem." That report focused on how "unchecked discretion or stringent requirements to impose fines or fees can lead and have led to discrimination and inequitable access to justice" for low-income communities of color. Its findings are egregious, and I'd merely add that that those aren't the only communities affected.

See, for example, other cases IJ has handled, like that of the (white) Florida retiree whose city fined him $500 a day (totaling nearly $30,000) because the grass in his lawn was too long. The reason it was so long is that, while the retiree traveled out of town on a family matter, the friend he'd asked to tend to his yard suddenly died and thus couldn't continue to mow. Or there's the town of Eagle, Wisconsin, site of another IJ case, where with "the help of the Municipal Law & Litigation Group — a private law firm that is paid by the hour to prosecute code violations — the town uses its codes to retaliate against citizens who speak out against town officials, to fine citizens tens of thousands of dollars for minor violations, and to pass the attorneys' fees on to unwitting citizens. The law firm has even threatened citizens with jailtime if they can't pay up."

These are among the most abusive stories, and ones where legal remedy may be available. There are so many more, and they can quickly do grave harm. About four in 10 Americans can't cover an unexpected $400 expense, let alone a fine in the thousands.

Then there are the invisible unintended consequences, which I've experienced myself. In the front of my house, there are two sets of three steps, one leading up from the sidewalk and another leading into the front porch. Several years ago, the middle step of the lower set was damaged and became a tripping hazard. We wanted to get the whole lower set replaced, so I had a contractor come out to give an estimate on this and some other repairs.

The contractor advised me not to hire him to fix my step. City code would require him to pull a permit, he told me, and that would draw the city inspector's attention to the upper set of steps, which don't have a landing at the top. That's a violation of current city code. Our steps are grandfathered in right now, but the contractor thought if we caught the city's notice, they'd make us fix the upper steps as well. The layout of our front yard is such that this would have turned a $3,000 project into a $15,000 project. We didn't have $15,000 to spend on steps, so we still have our tripping hazard out front. Though intended to make homes safer, the city code made my home less safe.

And it's not just the housing codes where these small injustices can be found. This week there's a bizarre story out of Michigan, where the state brought a misdemeanor charge against a farmer because she rehabilitated injured wild animals neighbors brought to her without getting a state license first. State agents killed six animals in her care, at least two of which seem to have long since become beloved pets. "I truly did not know I was breaking the law," she said, "because I had done this all my life, as a farmer." State agencies had previously inspected her farm and left without complaint.

I'd also put lots of beleaguering police practices in this category — not the high-profile deaths that get national headlines, but the more mundane aggravations. Like when the cops ticket people for a broken taillight they couldn't afford to fix, making them pay for both or lose their transportation, which can cascade into loss of livelihood and home. Like the dozens of petty traffic stops to which Philando Castile was subjected before he died at the hands of Minnesota police. Like stop-and-frisk. Like civil asset forfeiture, in which the government can take your money or property and give you no legal recourse for regaining it simply by claiming it's connected to criminal activity.

Such small injustices are bread and butter in libertarian journalism. I've referenced Reason repeatedly in this piece because it may be the best national aggregator of this stuff, and when I wrote for a since-shuttered libertarian outlet a few years ago, I covered reports like these on a near-daily basis. Back then, reading the absolutely wild headlines I wrote — full of gargantuan fines and ridiculous regulations — I wondered if we were sensationalizing.

We're not. The reporting is inherently shocking because these laws and practices are shockingly unreasonable and inhumane. These small injustices deserve to be deplored, and so do the governments that perpetrate them.

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