THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF HOWELL, MICHIGAN
Like many American cities, the City of Howell, Michigan requires its property owners to keep their lawns mowed below a certain height. Violators of the ordinance are charged a fine as well as a fee for the costs associated with hiring a private contractor to mow or otherwise maintain the property. Such an ordinance, of course, occupies the same moral plane as laws that lock up three generations of families in a labor camp for life because somebody’s uncle tried to leave the country.
Or so David Shoemaker, a Howell homeowner, would have you believe. He complains that such an ordinance “makes the City look like North Korea rather than an American city.” Kim Jong Eun would be amused … or, if he was not, he’d have David shot to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun.
It seems that Shoemaker and his daughter planted a maple tree in their tree lawn, that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The maple flourished for a few years, until the City came along to widen the curb. City workers hacked down the tree, and – when Shoemaker complained – they imperiously told him there was nothing he could do about it, because the City owned the tree lawn. Later, the same workers planted nine saplings in the tree lawn, and guy-wired them to a fare-thee-well.
Shoemaker was incensed, and he figured to get even. If the tree lawn was the City’s property, he reasoned, then city worker could just jolly well cut the grass on the tree lawn. He wasn’t going to do it. So Shoemaker stopped mowing the strip between the sidewalk and the street.
In North Korea, it’s illegal to name a baby “Kim Jong-Eun” (like anyone would want to). According to Shoemaker, Howell has an equally irrational and stupid ordinance, one that prohibits the owner or occupant of any lot in the City from “maintain[ing] on any such lot … any growth of weeds, grass or other rank vegetation to a greater height than eight inches.” The ordinance explicitly applies to any land “along the sidewalk, street or alley adjacent to the same between the property line and the curb.” Shoemaker’s act of civil disobedience promptly ran into a city inspector, who cited him under the ordinance when the grass in the tree lawn got to be high enough to harvest.
No doubt the city inspector wanted to throw Shoemaker and his daughter into the gulag. But he was limited to fining Shoemaker, and charging him for the cost of mowing the lawn. After several infractions and city-sponsored mowings, Shoemaker was billed for $600.00 by the City.
Shoemaker filed suit against the City in federal court, asserting that Howell had violated both his procedural and substantive due process rights. Amazingly (to us), the district court granted summary judgment for Shoemaker on both claims. But down at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, cooler heads prevailed.
Shoemaker argued that the City ordinance requiring him to mow the tree lawn violated his procedural and substantive due process rights. The Court held that while the citation for violating the ordinance didn’t expressly state appeal rights, the imposition on a property owner was so slight, a property owner was given a chance to avoid the fine by cutting the grass after the citation was served, and the standards of the ordinance – grass in excess of 8 inches high – were pretty straightforward. Anything you can settle with a yardstick isn’t very complex. The Court was not about to turn the fairly simple citation into a procedural due process violation.
Shoemaker claimed the statute violated his substantive due process rights as well. For those of you who had constitutional law right after lunch, and consequently fell asleep in a warm classroom with a full stomach, “substantive due process” is the doctrine that governmental deprivations of life, liberty or property are subject to limitations regardless of the adequacy of the procedures employed.” Which deprivations? Well, it “depends on the nature of the right being deprived.” Specifically, “[g]overnment actions that do not affect fundamental rights … will be upheld if they are rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”
There… that’s clear. If you had stayed awake in Constitutional Law, and taken good notes, you might be nonetheless be forgiven for thinking that “fundamental rights” are what Justice Potter Stewart was thinking of when quipped about pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”
What interested us about this decision was Shoemaker’s insistence that the tree lawn was owned by the City of Howell, and not by him. He said a city worker had told him that, and thus the matter was settled. The Sixth Circuit, not a court to take a litigant’s word for it, examined Michigan law on the topic.
The district court had granted summary judgment in favor of Shoemaker because the City owned the tree lawn in front of Shoemaker’s house, and “the right not to be forced by a government to maintain municipal property” is a fundamental one. The ordinance infringed on that basic right.
Nonsense, the Court of Appeals said. While Michigan cities possess “nominal” title to land designated for public use, the private property owners retain the usual rights of the proprietor. This relationship, the Court said, “reflects the reality that homeowners like Shoemaker have a special interest in the curb strips adjacent to their houses because these strips of land are, for all practical purposes, simply extensions of the homeowners’ lawns. The curb strips also provide a traffic and safety buffer between the street and the rest of the property. In other words, despite the City’s right of way over the curb strip for public use, Shoemaker retained both his property interest in and de facto use of the land in question.’
As for Shoemaker’s hyperbolic comparison of Howell’s lawn-cutting ordinance to Korea, the Court dryly observed that the notion “should come as a surprise to the citizens of both nations. On the one hand, North Korea is a totalitarian regime that notoriously tortures criminal defendants, uses nerve toxin on political opponents, executes non-violent offenders, and sends those accused of political offenses to forced labor camps. On the other hand, laws like Howell’s lawn-trimming ordinance “are ubiquitous from coast to coast.”
Shoemaker v. City of Howell, Case No. 13-2535 (6th Cir., July 28, 2015). Shoemaker and his minor daughter lived on East Sibley Street in Howell, Michigan, for 9 years. Early on, they planted a maple tree in the tree lawn, that strip of grass between the sidewalk and street.
During this time, the City undertook a citywide project to refurbish and landscape its streets. East Sibley Street next to the Shoemaker residence was among the areas where work was done. The City removed the Shoemakers’ maple tree replaced it with nine saplings. Shoemaker claims that when he protested the tree’s removal, City workers told him “that’s not your property, you have no say on what goes in or out of there.” Upset by the City’s unilateral remodeling of the curb strip, Shoemaker chose to protest the City’s actions via civil disobedience: he stopped mowing the curb strip.
The City received a complaint about Shoemaker’s uncut tree lawn. Based on the complaint, City Code Inspector Donahue visited the residence and left a door-hanger notice informing Shoemaker that his lawn was in violation of City Code § 622.02, which requires property owners and occupants to maintain the vegetation on their land. The Ordinance prohibits the owner or occupant of any lot in the City from “maintain[ing] on any such lot.., any growth of weeds, grass or other rank vegetation to a greater height than eight inches,” and applies to any land “along the sidewalk, street or alley adjacent to the same between the property line and the curb.” A violation of the Ordinance subjects the responsible party to fines.
On August 4, 2011, Donahue noticed vegetation that was taller than eight inches on the curb strip in front of Shoemaker’s house. As before, Donahue left a door-hanger notice informing Shoemaker of the violation and mailed another Notice of Ordinance Violation. He returned to the property on the next day to find that, although the lawn had been freshly mowed, the grass on the curb strip remained in excess of the Ordinance’s limitation.
Shoemaker told Donahue that he would not mow the curb strip because he had been told by City employees that the area was the City’s property and not his own. Donahue insisted that the property did in fact belong to Shoemaker. Shoemaker asked to be ticketed for the violation in order to challenge the Ordinance in court. Shoemaker was charged a total of $600 for his violations of the Ordinance, including $300 in grass-cutting services and $300 in fines.
Shoemaker filed suit against the City, asserting violations of his procedural and substantive due process rights. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Shoemaker, finding that the City owned the curb strip in front of Shoemaker’s house, that “the right not to be forced by a municipal government to maintain municipal property” is a fundamental one, and the Ordinance “unconstitutionally infringes” on that right.
The City of Howell appealed.
Held: The City did not violate Shoemaker’s procedural due process rights because it provided him with ample notice of the violation and an adequate opportunity to be heard. The City did not violate his substantive due process right, because Shoemaker continued to own the tree lawn, subject only to certain rights the City had to use the area for permissible purposes.
The Court weighed several factors in deciding exactly how much procedural process was due Shoemaker, including whether a private interest is affected by the official action, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of rights, the probable value, if any, of additional procedural safeguards, and the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.
Clearly, a private interest was affected by the Ordinance, although it was a slight one. The constitution does not require strict adherence to the City’s Ordinances. What it does demand – that the notice as given be reasonably calculated to alert Shoemaker of the charges against him and any avenues available for challenging those charges – was accomplished by the notices distributed by the City, which explained what he had to do to avoid a fine.
There was little risk of erroneous deprivation under the Ordinance If the vegetation on the land in question is allowed to grow beyond eight inches tall, then the owner or occupier of that land has violated the Ordinance. Due to this objective, readily ascertainable standard, there is little chance of a wrongful application of the law. The ample means of challenging an alleged violation under the laws of the City and the state of Michigan further counsel against the need for additional procedures. Finally, the burden of added process here would be significant, and that the potential burden “militates against yet more process.”
The Court said that Howell did not violate Shoemaker’s substantive due process rights because Shoemaker had a shared ownership interest in and the de facto use of the curb strip. Under Michigan law, Shoemaker technically owned the property at all relevant times and the City simply possessed a right of way for public use. The erroneous reasoning of the district court relied entirely on the inaccurate determination that the City is the sole owner of the curb strip. Given Shoemaker’s shared ownership interest in the curb strip as well as his de facto use thereof, no substantive due process violation occurred.
Substantive due process holds that governmental deprivations of life, liberty or property are subject to limitations regardless of the adequacy of the procedures employed. The limitations the Constitution imposes on such governmental deprivations depends on the nature of the right being deprived. Government actions that do not affect fundamental rights will be upheld if they are rationally related to a legitimate state interest.
The district court acknowledged that the Supreme Court has always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process, because guideposts for responsible decision-making in this unchartered area are scarce and open-ended. Despite this, the district court expanded the concept by identifying a new fundamental right: the right not to be forced by a municipal government to maintain municipal property.
The Court of Appeals observed that this “right” was predicated on the finding that the City owned the tree lawn, and that was wrong. Through a conveyance by a platting statute, the government does not receive title in the nature of a private ownership; it acquires no beneficial ownership of the land and has no voice concerning the use; and it does not possess the usual rights of a proprietor, but rather takes title only to the extent that it could preclude questions which might arise respecting the public uses, other than those of mere passage. “Simply put,” the Court of Appeals said, “the law vests the governmental entity with nominal title. We pause at this word ‘nominal’ to emphasize the obvious, i.e., that the property interest conveyed by these early platting statutes is a fee in name only.”
The reality, the Court ruled, is that homeowners have a special interest in the curb strips adjacent to their houses because these strips of land are, for all practical purposes, simply extensions of the homeowners’ lawns. The curb strips also provide a traffic and safety buffer between the street and the rest of the property. In other words, despite the City’s right of way over the curb strip for public use, Shoemaker retained both his property interest in and de facto use of the land in question.
Shoemaker suggested that the Ordinance was somehow “un-American.” The Court didn’t sit still for the argument. It said, “Shoemaker’s argument, like the district court’s opinion, relies on the erroneous assumption that the City is the sole owner of the curb strip. Shoemaker specifically compares the requirement that he maintain the curb strip associated with his property to draconian mandatory public-labor measures adopted by regimes in troubled nations such as the Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan, and Burma/Myanmar. These analogies are almost too outlandish to address. But even more hyperbolically, Shoemaker argues that the Ordinance ‘makes the City look like North Korea rather than an American city’. This final comparison should come as a surprise to the citizens of both nations.”
Indeed it does.
– Tom Root