Government Law

Chat with lawyer neighbor leads to constitutional case over $600 city 'weeds' fine

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A retired Chicago teacher had wanted to appeal the $600 fine she got last year for growing “weeds” in her prize-winning Chicago garden. (The prize, which was presented personally by former Mayor Richard Daley, includes a photo of Kathy Cummings’ yard.)

But it wasn’t until Cummings chatted with a neighbor that she was able to find an attorney to represent her in the case. The neighbor, James L. Bowers, happens to be a civil rights attorney. And he hasn’t simply appealed on Cummings’ behalf, he has filed a constitutional case against the city, its inspector and two city departments involved in issuing the ticket and upholding it at an administrative hearing, reports the Chicago Reader.

Her complaint, which was filed last month, contends that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague on its face and has been arbitrarily applied in violation of equal protection and due process in order to increase city revenue. The ordinance bans vegetation taller than 10 inches that isn’t maintained, but doesn’t define what is, and isn’t, a weed.

“Usually people just appeal the fine and the guilty finding,” Bowers tells the newspaper. “We’re going beyond that. She’s an environmentalist, a Green Party activist, and her garden is a political statement. We’re raising constitutional issues.”

The city declined to comment specifically, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation, but says the ordinance has previously been upheld against constitutional challenge.

Another environmentalist who was also ticketed under the ordinance paid the fine, plus court costs, after his administrative hearing, the Reader notes.

Ken Dunn, who has maintained a natural landscape in front of his home in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood for over 40 years, said he saw one individual fined over a rosebush during his day in court.

See also “Awarded by City of Chicago for Natural Garden, Resident Is Also Cited by City for Weeds, Fined $640”

Chicago Tribune (sub. req.): “Weed law in Chicago sends native plant gardeners to court”

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