Valarie Whitner, 57, has lived in the St. Louis suburb of Pagedale for nearly two decades, at first without any major brushes with the city government.
But then, the tickets started arriving in the mail. For tree stumps in her yard. For not filling the recycling bin to the brim. For chipped paint. It seemed no infraction was too small to escape the scrutiny of fine-happy officials.
“The city never spoke to us directly, so we never really knew what we were being fined for,” Whitner told Fox News. She added, “The monthly $100 fine just became a natural bill. … This has been one thing after another, and we still don’t know exactly what we paid for.”
Whitner was even forced to re-paint her two-story home three times in five years, to satisfy the city. It turns out she wasn’t alone.
Many Pagedale residents have been hammered with fines for various so-called infractions in recent years. Aggressive code inspectors are hardly unusual these days, but Pagedale homeowners allege they’ve been treated to a particularly brazen brand of enforcement – and have banded together to sue the city in federal court, in a civil rights case that’s getting national attention.
According to one report by Watchdog.org, Pagedale now considers it illegal for residents to have basketball hoops in their driveways, dog houses on their front lawn, uncut grass, overgrown gardens and fallen tree limbs. That’s not all – city inspectors even judge interior design decisions. Another plaintiff said she was cited for mismatched curtains and not having blinds in every window, according to Watchdog.org.
Whitner and other residents are currently represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. Whitner said she felt “something was not right” as she was getting all those tickets; the institute says that, indeed, such citations have skyrocketed.
According to Joshua House, an attorney at the institute, Pagedale has issued 495 percent more property and miscellaneous citations since 2010.
“This is a common ‘policing for profit’ scheme that we see across the country—governments using their citizens as ATMs,” House told Fox News. “… The city is so financially dependent, and because of that dependency, they have an incentive to find nitpicky violations and convict people for them.”
This case, according to House, is opening a new front in a national battle against aggressive municipal enforcement.
Whitner described one incident where a city inspector came onto her property, and stood by her back door while her window was open.
“I was so uncomfortable with that. I was home alone, and you could see me through my bedroom window on the first floor,” Whitner said. She said the inspector was there to order her to replace her screen door.
These encounters became so frequent that when asked by a local reporter about her case, she was able to furnish a bag of 33 citations.
“The city is punishing people who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s all aesthetics and within people’s homes,” House explained. He said the class-action case contends “that the entire system unconstitutionally incentivizes the city to ticket, convict, and fine people.”
According to House, nearly 18 percent of Pagedale’s budget is income from municipal court revenue – property and miscellaneous fines – just second to the city’s sales tax.
The city of Pagedale is being represented by local attorneys, who have filed a motion to dismiss.
“I have no comment,” Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter said when reached by Fox News.
A city attorney told The New York Times that the fines have “nothing to do with driving up revenue” and “everything to do with making the properties code compliant and safe.”