Florida Lawmakers Are Cracking Down on Secret Snitches
Whether you’re being penalized for having grass that’s too tall, or for running a home business in a residential neighborhood, chances are it was an anonymous complaint from a nosy neighbor that sent code inspectors to your door. Rapidly advancing legislation in Florida aims to put a stop to this phenomenon.
In late March, the Florida Senate voted 27-11 in favor of Senate Bill (S.B.) 60. That bill, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Bradly (R–Fleming Island), would forbid city or county code inspectors from acting on complaints about code violations unless the complainant provides their name and address.
The bill makes an exception for situations where an inspector has reason to believe an anonymously reported code violation poses “an imminent threat to public health, safety, or welfare” or the “imminent destruction of habitat or sensitive resources.”
A companion bill in the Florida House of Representatives, House Bill (H.B.) 833, would also make an exception for complainants who state they have “a substantial fear of retaliation or of status-based legal jeopardy” as a result of filing a complaint under their own name.
The House bill, sponsored by Toby Overdorf (R–Palm City), would also make an anonymous complainant liable for any costs a city or county accrued investigating baseless complaints made by people who falsely expressed fear of retaliation.
Some local governments in Florida already have done away with anonymous compliant systems. Since March 2013, Collier County has required people to provide a name and phone number when calling code enforcement unless they were reporting an emergency violation, according to a committee staff analysis of H.B. 833.
The idea behind banning anonymous complaints, Overdorf says, is to eliminate the ability of people to file “frivolous” complaints against their neighbors, reports WUSF.
“This bill reflects that the Florida legislature understands we have a problem with code enforcement in general. This is a measure that will perhaps eliminate one of the more pernicious aspects of code enforcement,” Ari Bargill, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, says of S.B. 60.
Bargill and the Institute for Justice have sued a number of Florida cities on behalf of homeowners slapped with fines after secret snitches reported innocuous code violations to local officials.
That includes a Miami Shores couple who were threatened with fines of $50 a day after someone reported their illegal vegetable garden. They eventually lost the court battle but won the war when the Florida legislature passed a bill legalizing home vegetable gardens.
The Institute for Justice is also suing the city of Dunedin, Florida, after code enforcement officers, acting on an anonymous complaint, fined a homeowner $500 per day for tall grass while he was out of town for 60 days, resulting in $30,000 in total fines.
Bargill says that banning local governments from acting on anonymous complaints will cut down the instances of people using code enforcement to carry out neighborhood vendettas. It will also lessen the instances of local governments hiding behind anonymous complaints when accused of heavy-handed enforcement.
Still, the root problem is the fact that cities have too many code restrictions to begin with.
“If someone develops an issue with a neighbor, it’s very easy for someone to find a thing they want to stick their neighbor with and mobilize the city’s municipal code enforcement body to go after that person,” Bargill tells Reason, adding that local governments also often have a profit incentive to fine people into oblivion.
Requiring neighbors to put their name on a complaint might lessen some people’s willingness to make them, but it won’t do anything to touch the underlying codes that ban all sorts of harmless activities.
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