by Hannah Dankbar
Discount Inn, Inc. v. City of Chicago
Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 28, 2015
(Note that the Court included photos of native Illinois plants in its written opinion; a very unusual practice)
Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings decided that Discount Inn, Inc. violated the weed and fence ordinances. The weed ordinance reads:
Any person who owns or controls property within the city must cut or other‐ wise control all weeds on such property so that the average height of such weeds does not exceed ten inches. Any person who violates this subsection shall be subject to a fine of not less than $600 nor more than $1,200. Each day that such violation continues shall be considered a separate offense to which a separate fine shall apply.
The fence ordinance reads:
It shall be the duty of the owner of any open lot located within the City of Chicago to cause the lot to be surrounded with a noncombustible screen fence …. Provided, however, that this section shall not apply to … sideyards. The owner shall maintain any such fence in a safe condition without tears, breaks, rust, splinters or dangerous protuberances and in a manner that does not endanger or threaten to endanger vehicular traffic by obstructing the view of drivers. Any fence which is not maintained in accordance with these provisions is hereby declared to be a public nuisance and shall be removed … . It shall be the duty of the owner of any lot whose fence has been so removed to replace such fence with a noncombustible screen fence meeting the requirements of this section and of this Code.” Municipal Code of Chicago § 7‐28‐750(a). Violators “shall be fined not less than $300 nor more than $600 for each offense,” and “each day such violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense to which a separate fine shall apply.
Discount Inn made two claims: (1) the ordinances violate the prohibition against “excessive fines” in the Eight Amendment; and (2) the weed ordinance is vague and forbids expressive activity protected by the First Amendment.
In regards to the first claim, the Supreme Court has not decided whether this clause applies to state action. This court assumes that it does apply, but found that the fines are not excessive. The fines for both ordinances enforce a legitimate government interest. Fencing vacant lots are important for identifying abandoned lots. The City has an interest in controlling weeds because uncontrolled weeds lead to problems such as obscuring debris, providing habitat to rodents and mosquitos, and contributing to breathing problems.
Regarding the second claim, Discount Inn argued that native plants are mistaken for weeds and their use is unnecessarily limited because of the ordinance. There is no clear definition of a weed in the city code. Discount Inn does not argue that they have native or other decorative plants, but simply rather that the ten-inch rule violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. It is true that the First Amendment protects some non-spoken work, such as paintings; however, the Court concluded that these weeds have no expressive value. The owner did nothing to cultivate or design the weeds.
Discount Inn also argues that the ordinances are unconstitutional because they do not specify a statute of limitations. There is no rule that there must be a statute of limitations. Prescribing a statute of limitations for a weed ordinance would require an insane use of city resources.
The decision was upheld.