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Judge OKs Ticket Scheme Taking Payment Upfront

(CN) - A Delaware county can collect fines for minor legal infractions before ticketed persons can contest the charge, a federal judge ruled.

Some of the violations that come under New Castle County's Instant Ticketing System include "prohibited growth of weeds and grass," untidy shrubbery, parking violations, and "outside storage of household items."

Roy and Damon Morris filed suit in 2009 after getting an instant ticket for a brush pile in their backyard. In May of that year, Code Enforcement Officer Christopher Yasik had sent the Morrises a courtesy letter in response to a complaint that foxes and raccoons had started nesting in "debris piles."

The letter informed the Morrises that their property would be inspected and a fine could be issued if a violation was found. They were also informed that the only way to avoid the ticket would be to ensure their property was free of any violations. In response to the letter, the Morrises filed an extension and provided the Code Enforcement Office with a certificate and letter from the National Wildlife Federation recognizing the brush pile as an official Certified Wildlife Habitat site.

In July, Code Enforcement Officer Yasik advised the Morris family that he had consulted with his superiors and the Delaware Nature Society and was informed that backyard habitats are still required to comply with New Castle County Code.

In October 2009, after the pile was not removed, the Code Enforcement Office issued a $50 ticket. The fine grew to $100 when the Morrises tried to appeal the penalty before actually paying it.

By April 2010, a review board decided that the materials in the Morrises' backyard did qualify as a violation because they were not stored materials.

"The materials are part of a living ecosystem and natural habitat," according to the decision quoted in the District Court's opinion. "There is constant turnover of the materials used in the brush pile and the materials do not fall into the category of rubbish or debris. The Applicants' brush pile is not in violation of the Code."

After getting their $100 back and receiving permission to continue maintaining the pile, the Morrises filed a class action suit over the instant ticketing system, which they claim violates the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson granted the county summary judgment and dismissed the case on April 13. She ruled that monetary loss of $100 is a minimal deprivation, as opposed to something more serious, like loss of employment.

"Plaintiffs' monetary private interest is further minimized by the fact that plaintiffs do not allege that the deprivation worked a serious harm upon them," Robinson added.

The code enforcement board issues violations to uphold the health, safety and welfare of the community as a whole, according to the ruling. "Although plaintiffs would prefer a predeprivation hearing, they had an opportunity to discuss their concerns with [code enforcement officer] Yasik in person," Robinson wrote.

Allowing homeowners to appeal without prepaying fines would likely increase the number of appeals and slow the system. "Frivolous appeals would be unmanageable and would require numerous additional attorneys and support staff to process efficiently and quickly," the 31-page decision states.

Judge Robinson found that the "additional costs associated with providing a predeprivation hearing would outweigh its utility in reducing the risk of error, and that plaintiffs' interest in the prompt repayment of their civil penalty falls short of justifying a requirement that a predeprivation hearing be constitutionally required."

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