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Westlake Legal Group > News Corporation (Page 51)

A$AP Rocky gets better prison conditions in Sweden thanks to White House intervention

Westlake Legal Group AP19193670557010 A$AP Rocky gets better prison conditions in Sweden thanks to White House intervention New York Post Mara Siegler fox-news/entertainment/genres/political fox-news/entertainment/events/in-court fnc/entertainment fnc article 3011a30a-e3f2-5b5d-864f-7db728cbcaac

The White House has secured better jailhouse conditions for A$AP Rocky, Page Six has learned.

The Harlem hip-hop star has been locked up in a Swedish prison for more than two weeks after he got in a street fight with two men who had been tailing him and his entourage through the streets of Stockholm.

But when Rocky’s manager, John Ehmann, complained that his client’s conditions at the Kronoberg detention center were “inhumane,” the Urban Revitalization Coalition — an organization set up by the Trump administration — put Ehmann in contact with senior White House aide and President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

KIM KARDASHIAN THANKS TRUMP, POMPEO AND KUSHNER FOR EFFORTS TO GET A$AP ROCKY RELEASED FROM SWEDEN JAIL

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West also lobbied Kushner to intervene in Rocky’s case.

“Jared immediately got Rocky moved to better living conditions,” Pastor Darrell Scott of the URC told Page Six exclusively. “They had this guy in a crap hole. I don’t know if it’s a different facility [that he’s now in], but he’s at least on a different floor. It’s better surroundings.”

Scott said that he and colleague Kareem Lanier told Trump about the situation as well.

“[Trump] asked, ‘Do you like the guy, do you trust him?’ And he said, ‘OK, we’ll look into it then.’ ” Scott added, “It was never a publicity grab . . . It’s just this administration trying to help an American citizen overseas who’s in dire straits.”

He added, “Jared called Sunday evening and said that it’s looking optimistic.”

Trump also got Secretary of State Mike Pompeo involved, Scott tells us.

SWEDEN SHOULD TREAT A$AP ROCKY ‘WITH RESPECT’: US STATE DEPARTMENT

Meanwhile, the governor of the detention center — where Rocky’s being held because he’s been deemed a flight risk by Swedish authorities — has told Page Six the facility has “been completely renovated.”

Reports said Rocky was sleeping on a yoga mat, eating an apple a day and next to a feces-throwing inmate.

The State Department has said, “We expect all governments, including Sweden, to treat American citizens fairly and with respect.”

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

Reps did not immediately get back to us.

This article originally appeared in Page Six.

Westlake Legal Group AP19193670557010 A$AP Rocky gets better prison conditions in Sweden thanks to White House intervention New York Post Mara Siegler fox-news/entertainment/genres/political fox-news/entertainment/events/in-court fnc/entertainment fnc article 3011a30a-e3f2-5b5d-864f-7db728cbcaac   Westlake Legal Group AP19193670557010 A$AP Rocky gets better prison conditions in Sweden thanks to White House intervention New York Post Mara Siegler fox-news/entertainment/genres/political fox-news/entertainment/events/in-court fnc/entertainment fnc article 3011a30a-e3f2-5b5d-864f-7db728cbcaac

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

‘He was basking in that moment like an iguana soaking up racist sun’: Late-night hosts rebuke Trump over rally chant

Westlake Legal Group 13rkizB5NxJMm7i5wc1sq3ohkdxXSYKJZn1TENvEgrY ‘He was basking in that moment like an iguana soaking up racist sun’: Late-night hosts rebuke Trump over rally chant r/politics

Good news from the future!

“We have a breaking news event. Former President and convicted felon, Donald J. Trump, was found unresponsive in his cell at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York this morning. Doctors have confirmed that he has passed away seemingly from natural causes. He is survived by his ex-wife, Melania Schwartzenegger, several children presently serving concurrent prison terms, and three hundred thousand dead-end followers who have established the small independent nation Trumpistan on a previously unknown island in the South Pacific. In an ironic and tragic turn of events, the people of Trumpistan have been attempting in vain to return to the United States due to the ravages of climate change on their small island but changes to the US asylum process made by the Trump Administration prevents them from doing so.” Anderson Cooper, 2025

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Oklahoma man allegedly raped toddler in McDonald’s restroom during daycare field trip: police

An Oklahoma man was arrested after he allegedly raped a four-year-old girl in a McDonald’s restroom on Tuesday while she was on a daycare field trip.

Joshua David Kabatra, 37, was arrested on two counts of rape and one count of lewd acts with a child following the incident at a McDonald’s in Midwest City Okla., Oklahoma City’s Fox 25 reported.

DNA FROM CIGARETTE BUTTS LINKS MAN TO 12-YEAR-OLD’S KIDNAPPING, SEXUAL ASSAULT: PROSECUTORS

Westlake Legal Group kabatra Oklahoma man allegedly raped toddler in McDonald's restroom during daycare field trip: police fox-news/us/us-regions/southwest/oklahoma fox-news/us/crime/sex-crimes fox news fnc/us fnc Danielle Wallace article 4c303d9f-bafc-5436-9fa1-627d6fba7c01

Joshua Kabatra, 37, was arrested on two counts of rape, one count of lewd acts with a child. (Midwest City Police Department)

LAPD OFFICER LINKED TO TWO SEPARATE RAPE CASES BY DNA ‘COLD MATCH’: POLICE

The four-year-old girl left her caretakers to use a restroom located within the McDonald’s play area, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by Oklahoma City’s KWTV-DT.

One of the caretakers who went to check on the girl found that the restroom door was locked and began knocking. Kabatra eventually opened the door with his arms raised saying “I was just washing my hands,” the caretaker told police.  The child told the caretaker and police that Kabatra had touched her genital areas with both his hands and his own genitals.

Kabatra told police that he felt ill and went into the unlocked restroom where he found the child already sitting on the toilet. He claimed he threw up in the sink, washed his hands and then left.

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

“At McDonald’s, nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our customers,” the company said in a statement. “We are deeply disturbed by the incident that occurred at one of our Oklahoma restaurants earlier this week. We are fully cooperating with the police during their investigation.”

Westlake Legal Group kabatra Oklahoma man allegedly raped toddler in McDonald's restroom during daycare field trip: police fox-news/us/us-regions/southwest/oklahoma fox-news/us/crime/sex-crimes fox news fnc/us fnc Danielle Wallace article 4c303d9f-bafc-5436-9fa1-627d6fba7c01   Westlake Legal Group kabatra Oklahoma man allegedly raped toddler in McDonald's restroom during daycare field trip: police fox-news/us/us-regions/southwest/oklahoma fox-news/us/crime/sex-crimes fox news fnc/us fnc Danielle Wallace article 4c303d9f-bafc-5436-9fa1-627d6fba7c01

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

A Florida woman was fined $100,000 for a dirty pool and overgrown grass. When do fines become excessive?

States, cities and counties collect billions of dollars in fines. The Supreme Court raised the possibility that some are going too far.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Kristi Allen read the letter and thought it had to be a scam. 

It said she owed $92,600 in fines for overgrown vegetation and a stagnant swimming pool at a house she no longer owned. She must pay in two weeks, the letter said, hinting that she could be sued if she didn’t. Including interest charges and other fees, her debt swelled to $103,559, about twice her yearly income. 

Three months later, in late 2018, the city of Dunedin sued to collect, setting off another legal fight over how local governments use their power to impose heavy fines on citizens. What Allen, 38, a mother of two, thought had to be a scam turned into a nightmare she said could bankrupt her family. 

“I haven’t woken up from it yet,” she said. 

Dunedin, a small seaside city outside Tampa, cracks down on code violations, saddling homeowners with massive fines while its revenue grows. In 5½ years, the city has collected nearly $3.6 million in fines – sometimes tens of thousands at a time – for violating laws that prohibit grasses taller than 10 inches, recreational vehicles parked on streets at certain hours or sidings and bricks that don’t match.

The Supreme Court ruled in February that local governments can’t impose excessive fines. The decision is among the first constraints by the federal government on how much money cities and states can charge people for everything from speeding to overgrown lawns. But the court did not say what should be considered excessive, leaving local governments and residents with a question: How much is too much? 

Fines are a reliable source of revenue for cash-starved cities, and have become a big – and rapidly growing – business for local governments. States, cities and counties collected a total of $15.3 billion in fines and forfeitures in 2016, according to the most recent financial records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a 44% jump from a decade earlier. 

The Supreme Court’s decision should be a wake-up call for local governments that trap people in a never-ending cycle of debt, said Lisa Foster, a former Justice Department official who runs the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group. But the ruling has not reined in some of the most aggressive practices, in Dunedin and elsewhere. 

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Dunedin officials declined to be interviewed but insisted through a spokesman that the fines they impose were neither excessive nor abusive. Dunedin’s code enforcement policies are meant to “protect the integrity of neighborhoods and the quality of the community,” spokesman Ron Sachs said.  

City and county records show that at least 33 homeowners owed the city $20,000 or more in fines as of May. That tally does not include dozens of bank- and company-owned houses with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of code violations. In some cases, the fines seem to have more to do with aesthetics than public safety.  

The city fined a man nearly $30,000 because of a “chronic” overgrown yard. 

It fined a couple $31,000 for fixing their roof without a permit after a tree fell on it during a hurricane. 

“They’re using a shotgun to kill a mouse,” said Bill Prescott, who was fined $43,000 because of an inoperative car and a pile of dried leaves in his front yard and plants that grew over the street. Prescott, who lives with his wife in Tallahassee, said he became ill last year and couldn’t make the long drive to Dunedin to maintain their second home. Fines of $250 a day piled up without his knowledge, Prescott said.

“It just leaves me scratching,” he said.  

Homeowners struggle to pay fines in Dunedin, Fla. code enforcement violations

The city of Dunedin, Fla. may be running afoul of the Supreme Court with its aggressive code enforcement policy. Kristine Phillips reports.

USA TODAY

‘Almost Gestapo-like’

Allen moved to Dunedin in 2005 to be with her boyfriend, Keith, who  later became her husband. She bought a bungalow-style house on the same street where he was raised. It had a swimming pool and a backyard next to a popular hiking trail, so for someone who loves swimming and the outdoors, it seemed perfect. They planted palm trees in the yard and restored the pool that had sat empty for years.  

Then the financial crisis hit. Allen, a radiologic technologist, took a pay cut and lost her house in the wave of foreclosures that washed over Florida. She signed an agreement with U.S. Bank National Association allowing the foreclosure and moved out. She thought Dunedin was behind her.  

In early 2014, three years after Allen moved out, a code inspector came to the house, which had been vacant. Brown palm fronds littered the overgrown backyard. A neighbor told the inspector that something dead may have been rotting there. The swimming pool had turned into a bright green, mosquito-infested cesspool.  

City officials sent notices of the problems to Allen, who was still listed as the homeowner in county property records. Then they started fining her $100 a day. The letters mailed to Allen were returned undeliverable with no forwarding address. The city kept fining her anyway.  

Westlake Legal Group 52e349eb-0721-4026-ad3c-a76866b64da0-0605ZR_0043PM A Florida woman was fined $100,000 for a dirty pool and overgrown grass. When do fines become excessive?

Kristi Allen’s paperwork. Preston C. Mack, USA TODAY

Allen said none of this should have been her problem. As far as she knew, she relinquished ownership of the house when she agreed to the foreclosure in 2011. Her name stayed in property records because the foreclosure was not finalized until late 2014. By then, the city had been fining Allen for several months. (U.S. Bank National Association said it did not have control of Allen’s loan and referred questions about the case to the company that serviced Allen’s mortgage, which did not immediately respond.) 

The daily fines continued for the next two years until a code inspector visited the house again and saw it had been cleaned and renovated. For much of the time the fines were accumulating in 2015 and 2016, Allen no longer owned the house. 

Seeking to collect, Dunedin’s city attorney mailed the demand letter to Allen – this time to her current address. She looked up the attorney’s name online and realized the letter was real. 

“It defies common sense that someone could all of a sudden owe $100k where they had no idea there was even an issue,” her attorney, Ben Hillard, said. 

Allen isn’t the only homeowner to accuse Dunedin of overzealous code enforcement practices and say they were blindsided by a huge fine that accumulated for years. Others, such as Guillaume Picot, said they were fined daily even as they tried to fix the violations.  

After a tree smashed a corner of the roof of Picot’s rental property during Hurricane Irma two years ago, he bought $300 worth of wood and other supplies at Home Depot and fixed the damage himself. The city fined him $200 a day for fixing the roof without a permit. The fines racked up while Picot scrambled to find a locally licensed roofer who would sign off on his repairs. He and his wife owe about $31,000. 

“They’re not human with their decisions,” he said of Dunedin officials. 

Many of the debts have swelled so much that the city can’t collect them at all. Even when Dunedin settles for a smaller amount, it is less forgiving than other cities, said Chad Orsatti, an attorney from nearby Palm Harbor who said he has settled several Dunedin code enforcement cases on behalf of homeowners. 

“It’s almost Gestapo-like,” Orsatti said. “You can have a screw in the wrong spot. It’s an easy fix, but until you get that contractor to come back out there and sign off on it, those fines are running every day.” 

Sachs, the city spokesman, declined to comment about Allen’s case and those of other homeowners. He said fewer than 2% of the city’s code enforcement disputes end up with cumulative fines, and those that do involve homeowners “who have chosen to stay in violation” and have shown “disdain, disregard and disrespect for the rule of law and their neighborhoods.” 

Sachs said code enforcement is not about generating revenue for the city. 

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In Florida and elsewhere, unpaid fines can be attached to someone’s property through liens. That allows cities to foreclose and take the property to collect what they’re owed. In a performance review from 2015, a former Dunedin code enforcement officer, Michael Kepto, wrote that his goal was to “continue to be a financial asset to the city by the amounts of liens collected.”  

Kepto said city officials never asked him to pursue more liens to generate revenue. He said the city was inundated with vacant properties that banks had foreclosed at the time he wrote the performance review.  

Dunedin expects to make a little more than $1 million this year from fines and forfeitures. That’s about five times as much as the city made a decade ago.   

‘Deprivation and punishment’

The ways in which cities levy fines has been under scrutiny since at least 2015, when Ferguson, Missouri’s law enforcement became a national symbol of racial bias in policing after the shooting death of a young black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a  white police officer. The Justice Department cleared the officer of wrongdoing but published a scathing report describing the city’s municipal court system as a moneymaking enterprise that trapped poor and predominantly black residents in an endless spiral of debt and incarceration. 

Hard-to-pay fines spring up seemingly everywhere, as cities look for ways to punish violations and collect money without raising taxes.  

In Miami, traffic violations usually add up to hundreds of dollars. Collection agencies also add a 40% surcharge, meaning someone with several tickets can owe fines of $3,000 to $7,000. 

Doraville, Georgia, fined one homeowner $1,000 for stacking firewood in his backyard, according to a lawsuit that accuses the city of aggressive ticketing practices. A government newsletter said in 2015 that Doraville’s court system, which collects the fines, brings in “over $3 million annually” and “contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.” 

“What we have seen is an increasing tendency of municipalities to criminalize, or at least heavily fine, behavior that not many people would describe as bad,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fees and Fines Justice Center. “Letting your lawn grow too high arguably is not the most serious offense.” 

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Charles Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, said most fines, which are generally a small portion of local governments’ revenue, are in place to correct bad behavior. 

“The interest of government is not to collect revenue from bad behavior. It’s to get compliance,” he said.  

Fines in some cases have become so big that they make it impossible for people to pay, let alone fix the violations that got them in trouble, said Robert Eckard, a Tampa lawyer representing another Dunedin homeowner. 

“It’s like setting someone up for failure,” Eckard said. “It’s deprivation and punishment for people who don’t have the income to remedy the problem.” 

Last year, the chief justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court condemned governments’ reliance on fines to make money. 

“Courts are centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in a letter to her fellow judges urging them not to succumb to pressure to generate revenue through the court system.  

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court took a step to upend cities and states’ ability to decide for themselves when fines are appropriate.  

That case started when prosecutors in Indiana went to court to demand that a man convicted of a minor drug charge forfeit his $42,000 Land Rover. The car was worth four times as much as the maximum possible fine for the crime, but the government’s attorneys argued that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines did not apply to cities and states.  

The Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled unanimously that the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “excessive fines,” restricts the fees state and local governments can impose. 

“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield through Anglo-American history for good reason,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “Such fines undermine other liberties.” 

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The Supreme Court’s decision alone will not stop municipalities’ aggressive practices, said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who oversaw the Ferguson investigation. Instead, she said, it will take more lawsuits to flesh out the limit for what constitutes an excessive fine. 

One lawsuit was filed in May against Dunedin. 

The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties group, sued the city after it fined a homeowner nearly $30,000 over an overgrown lawn. City officials, who described the homeowner as a chronic violator, also sought to foreclose on his house.  

The ability to impose heavy fines and to foreclose on people’s property “are awesome powers” that should be used against institutional landlords, not homeowners, said Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. 

‘Look at who you’re hurting’

Last year, four days before Christmas, Allen received another letter from the city. It told her she had been sued.  

“How much are they suing you for?” Allen recalled her husband asking. 

“$103,” she responded, giving a shortened version of the debt she could not pay.  

Their son overheard and offered to use his own savings to pay his mother’s debt. 

“He’s like, ‘Oh, Mommy, I have $103. I’ll give you $103,’ ” Allen said, her voice shaking and her eyes welling up with tears as she remembered the day Christmas was ruined.  

The city argued that Allen should pay, even as it acknowledged that her mortgage lender had taken control of the house. Dunedin’s attorneys cited a state statute saying the lien the city placed on the house where the violation occurred applies to other personal property Allen owned.  

Hillard, Allen’s attorney, said forcing her to pay violated her right to due process because she didn’t know the violations even existed. Liens, Hillard argued, are tied to properties, not to a person.  

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Allen and her husband, a garage door technician, own a house just outside of Dunedin. They had planned to buy a new house and perhaps replace an old car. They had planned to save for college for their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. None of that is happening, Allen said, because the city’s lawsuit “totally crippled us.” 

To defend herself, Allen has spent thousands of dollars in legal expenses, each bill has grown bigger than her monthly mortgage. She said she has started paying for bills, such as her children’s summer camp, with her credit card. Soon, she’ll do the same with attorney fees, which she pays in installments.  

If she loses, Allen will be liable not only for the fines but also for Dunedin’s attorney fees. The city could garnish her paychecks.  

“I need my paycheck to live, for my children, for my house, for my car,” Allen said. 

She said she finds it hard to concentrate at work because she’s so worried she won’t be able to pay her lawyer, let alone for her children’s education. 

“I know it’s not personal to them. But it’s personal to me and the other people that they are doing this to,” Allen said, referring to Dunedin officials. “Take a look at who you’re hurting and how you’re hurting them. Is it worth it?”  

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Indiana mom allegedly left child in hot car during interview with Department of Child Services: report

An Indiana mom was arrested Tuesday for allegedly leaving her toddler in a hot car during a Department of Child Services interview with her newborn, according to a report.

Jennifer K. Ost, 27, arrived with her newborn to an appointment with a DCS at Community Pediatrics in Anderson – about 45 miles northeast of Indianapolis, Fox 59 reported. According to court documents, she gave birth to her son four days earlier and signed him out of the hospital against medical advice.

Westlake Legal Group INDIANA Indiana mom allegedly left child in hot car during interview with Department of Child Services: report fox-news/us/us-regions/midwest/indiana fox-news/us/crime fox news fnc/us fnc Bradford Betz article 197f0ad4-6596-5ddf-9184-4bf803623d34

Jennifer K. Ost is accused of leaving her child in a hot car during a Department of Child Services interview. 

Police said the appointment was scheduled at 2:30 p.m. but Ost arrived at 2:40 p.m. After a physician examined her baby, she became “belligerent” and started cursing at the DCS employee during the interview, court documents said.

The hospital received a phone call around 4:30 p.m. regarding a small child in the parking lot, Fox 59 reported. A police officer found a young boy in the car, watching a movie on cell phones. It was reportedly 86 degrees outside.

16-MONTH-OLD IOWA GIRL DIES AFTER BEING LEFT IN HOT CAR: POLICE

Police said all of the car windows were closed and the child was sweating profusely. The officer brought the boy inside, court documents said. Police determined the car belonged to Ost after running the license plate, Fox 59 reported.

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Ost allegedly told authorities that her toddler did not want to come to the appointment with her so she left him the car. Ost was arrested and charged with neglect of a dependent. Both of her children were taken into DCS care, Fox 59 reported.

Westlake Legal Group INDIANA Indiana mom allegedly left child in hot car during interview with Department of Child Services: report fox-news/us/us-regions/midwest/indiana fox-news/us/crime fox news fnc/us fnc Bradford Betz article 197f0ad4-6596-5ddf-9184-4bf803623d34   Westlake Legal Group INDIANA Indiana mom allegedly left child in hot car during interview with Department of Child Services: report fox-news/us/us-regions/midwest/indiana fox-news/us/crime fox news fnc/us fnc Bradford Betz article 197f0ad4-6596-5ddf-9184-4bf803623d34

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

A Florida woman was fined $100,000 for a dirty pool and overgrown grass. When do fines become excessive?

States, cities and counties collect billions of dollars in fines. The Supreme Court raised the possibility that some are going too far.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Kristi Allen read the letter and thought it had to be a scam. 

It said she owed $92,600 in fines for overgrown vegetation and a stagnant swimming pool at a house she no longer owned. She must pay in two weeks, the letter said, hinting that she could be sued if she didn’t. Including interest charges and other fees, her debt swelled to $103,559, about twice her yearly income. 

Three months later, in late 2018, the city of Dunedin sued to collect, setting off another legal fight over how local governments use their power to impose heavy fines on citizens. What Allen, 38, a mother of two, thought had to be a scam turned into a nightmare she said could bankrupt her family. 

“I haven’t woken up from it yet,” she said. 

Dunedin, a small seaside city outside Tampa, cracks down on code violations, saddling homeowners with massive fines while its revenue grows. In 5½ years, the city has collected nearly $3.6 million in fines – sometimes tens of thousands at a time – for violating laws that prohibit grasses taller than 10 inches, recreational vehicles parked on streets at certain hours or sidings and bricks that don’t match.

The Supreme Court ruled in February that local governments can’t impose excessive fines. The decision is among the first constraints by the federal government on how much money cities and states can charge people for everything from speeding to overgrown lawns. But the court did not say what should be considered excessive, leaving local governments and residents with a question: How much is too much? 

Fines are a reliable source of revenue for cash-starved cities, and have become a big – and rapidly growing – business for local governments. States, cities and counties collected a total of $15.3 billion in fines and forfeitures in 2016, according to the most recent financial records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a 44% jump from a decade earlier. 

The Supreme Court’s decision should be a wake-up call for local governments that trap people in a never-ending cycle of debt, said Lisa Foster, a former Justice Department official who runs the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group. But the ruling has not reined in some of the most aggressive practices, in Dunedin and elsewhere. 

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Dunedin officials declined to be interviewed but insisted through a spokesman that the fines they impose were neither excessive nor abusive. Dunedin’s code enforcement policies are meant to “protect the integrity of neighborhoods and the quality of the community,” spokesman Ron Sachs said.  

City and county records show that at least 33 homeowners owed the city $20,000 or more in fines as of May. That tally does not include dozens of bank- and company-owned houses with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of code violations. In some cases, the fines seem to have more to do with aesthetics than public safety.  

The city fined a man nearly $30,000 because of a “chronic” overgrown yard. 

It fined a couple $31,000 for fixing their roof without a permit after a tree fell on it during a hurricane. 

“They’re using a shotgun to kill a mouse,” said Bill Prescott, who was fined $43,000 because of an inoperative car and a pile of dried leaves in his front yard and plants that grew over the street. Prescott, who lives with his wife in Tallahassee, said he became ill last year and couldn’t make the long drive to Dunedin to maintain their second home. Fines of $250 a day piled up without his knowledge, Prescott said.

“It just leaves me scratching,” he said.  

Homeowners struggle to pay fines in Dunedin, Fla. code enforcement violations

The city of Dunedin, Fla. may be running afoul of the Supreme Court with its aggressive code enforcement policy. Kristine Phillips reports.

USA TODAY

‘Almost Gestapo-like’

Allen moved to Dunedin in 2005 to be with her boyfriend, Keith, who  later became her husband. She bought a bungalow-style house on the same street where he was raised. It had a swimming pool and a backyard next to a popular hiking trail, so for someone who loves swimming and the outdoors, it seemed perfect. They planted palm trees in the yard and restored the pool that had sat empty for years.  

Then the financial crisis hit. Allen, a radiologic technologist, took a pay cut and lost her house in the wave of foreclosures that washed over Florida. She signed an agreement with U.S. Bank National Association allowing the foreclosure and moved out. She thought Dunedin was behind her.  

In early 2014, three years after Allen moved out, a code inspector came to the house, which had been vacant. Brown palm fronds littered the overgrown backyard. A neighbor told the inspector that something dead may have been rotting there. The swimming pool had turned into a bright green, mosquito-infested cesspool.  

City officials sent notices of the problems to Allen, who was still listed as the homeowner in county property records. Then they started fining her $100 a day. The letters mailed to Allen were returned undeliverable with no forwarding address. The city kept fining her anyway.  

Westlake Legal Group 52e349eb-0721-4026-ad3c-a76866b64da0-0605ZR_0043PM A Florida woman was fined $100,000 for a dirty pool and overgrown grass. When do fines become excessive?

Kristi Allen’s paperwork. Preston C. Mack, USA TODAY

Allen said none of this should have been her problem. As far as she knew, she relinquished ownership of the house when she agreed to the foreclosure in 2011. Her name stayed in property records because the foreclosure was not finalized until late 2014. By then, the city had been fining Allen for several months. (U.S. Bank National Association said it did not have control of Allen’s loan and referred questions about the case to the company that serviced Allen’s mortgage, which did not immediately respond.) 

The daily fines continued for the next two years until a code inspector visited the house again and saw it had been cleaned and renovated. For much of the time the fines were accumulating in 2015 and 2016, Allen no longer owned the house. 

Seeking to collect, Dunedin’s city attorney mailed the demand letter to Allen – this time to her current address. She looked up the attorney’s name online and realized the letter was real. 

“It defies common sense that someone could all of a sudden owe $100k where they had no idea there was even an issue,” her attorney, Ben Hillard, said. 

Allen isn’t the only homeowner to accuse Dunedin of overzealous code enforcement practices and say they were blindsided by a huge fine that accumulated for years. Others, such as Guillaume Picot, said they were fined daily even as they tried to fix the violations.  

After a tree smashed a corner of the roof of Picot’s rental property during Hurricane Irma two years ago, he bought $300 worth of wood and other supplies at Home Depot and fixed the damage himself. The city fined him $200 a day for fixing the roof without a permit. The fines racked up while Picot scrambled to find a locally licensed roofer who would sign off on his repairs. He and his wife owe about $31,000. 

“They’re not human with their decisions,” he said of Dunedin officials. 

Many of the debts have swelled so much that the city can’t collect them at all. Even when Dunedin settles for a smaller amount, it is less forgiving than other cities, said Chad Orsatti, an attorney from nearby Palm Harbor who said he has settled several Dunedin code enforcement cases on behalf of homeowners. 

“It’s almost Gestapo-like,” Orsatti said. “You can have a screw in the wrong spot. It’s an easy fix, but until you get that contractor to come back out there and sign off on it, those fines are running every day.” 

Sachs, the city spokesman, declined to comment about Allen’s case and those of other homeowners. He said fewer than 2% of the city’s code enforcement disputes end up with cumulative fines, and those that do involve homeowners “who have chosen to stay in violation” and have shown “disdain, disregard and disrespect for the rule of law and their neighborhoods.” 

Sachs said code enforcement is not about generating revenue for the city. 

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In Florida and elsewhere, unpaid fines can be attached to someone’s property through liens. That allows cities to foreclose and take the property to collect what they’re owed. In a performance review from 2015, a former Dunedin code enforcement officer, Michael Kepto, wrote that his goal was to “continue to be a financial asset to the city by the amounts of liens collected.”  

Kepto said city officials never asked him to pursue more liens to generate revenue. He said the city was inundated with vacant properties that banks had foreclosed at the time he wrote the performance review.  

Dunedin expects to make a little more than $1 million this year from fines and forfeitures. That’s about five times as much as the city made a decade ago.   

‘Deprivation and punishment’

The ways in which cities levy fines has been under scrutiny since at least 2015, when Ferguson, Missouri’s law enforcement became a national symbol of racial bias in policing after the shooting death of a young black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a  white police officer. The Justice Department cleared the officer of wrongdoing but published a scathing report describing the city’s municipal court system as a moneymaking enterprise that trapped poor and predominantly black residents in an endless spiral of debt and incarceration. 

Hard-to-pay fines spring up seemingly everywhere, as cities look for ways to punish violations and collect money without raising taxes.  

In Miami, traffic violations usually add up to hundreds of dollars. Collection agencies also add a 40% surcharge, meaning someone with several tickets can owe fines of $3,000 to $7,000. 

Doraville, Georgia, fined one homeowner $1,000 for stacking firewood in his backyard, according to a lawsuit that accuses the city of aggressive ticketing practices. A government newsletter said in 2015 that Doraville’s court system, which collects the fines, brings in “over $3 million annually” and “contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.” 

“What we have seen is an increasing tendency of municipalities to criminalize, or at least heavily fine, behavior that not many people would describe as bad,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fees and Fines Justice Center. “Letting your lawn grow too high arguably is not the most serious offense.” 

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Charles Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, said most fines, which are generally a small portion of local governments’ revenue, are in place to correct bad behavior. 

“The interest of government is not to collect revenue from bad behavior. It’s to get compliance,” he said.  

Fines in some cases have become so big that they make it impossible for people to pay, let alone fix the violations that got them in trouble, said Robert Eckard, a Tampa lawyer representing another Dunedin homeowner. 

“It’s like setting someone up for failure,” Eckard said. “It’s deprivation and punishment for people who don’t have the income to remedy the problem.” 

Last year, the chief justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court condemned governments’ reliance on fines to make money. 

“Courts are centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in a letter to her fellow judges urging them not to succumb to pressure to generate revenue through the court system.  

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court took a step to upend cities and states’ ability to decide for themselves when fines are appropriate.  

That case started when prosecutors in Indiana went to court to demand that a man convicted of a minor drug charge forfeit his $42,000 Land Rover. The car was worth four times as much as the maximum possible fine for the crime, but the government’s attorneys argued that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines did not apply to cities and states.  

The Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled unanimously that the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “excessive fines,” restricts the fees state and local governments can impose. 

“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield through Anglo-American history for good reason,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “Such fines undermine other liberties.” 

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The Supreme Court’s decision alone will not stop municipalities’ aggressive practices, said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who oversaw the Ferguson investigation. Instead, she said, it will take more lawsuits to flesh out the limit for what constitutes an excessive fine. 

One lawsuit was filed in May against Dunedin. 

The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties group, sued the city after it fined a homeowner nearly $30,000 over an overgrown lawn. City officials, who described the homeowner as a chronic violator, also sought to foreclose on his house.  

The ability to impose heavy fines and to foreclose on people’s property “are awesome powers” that should be used against institutional landlords, not homeowners, said Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. 

‘Look at who you’re hurting’

Last year, four days before Christmas, Allen received another letter from the city. It told her she had been sued.  

“How much are they suing you for?” Allen recalled her husband asking. 

“$103,” she responded, giving a shortened version of the debt she could not pay.  

Their son overheard and offered to use his own savings to pay his mother’s debt. 

“He’s like, ‘Oh, Mommy, I have $103. I’ll give you $103,’ ” Allen said, her voice shaking and her eyes welling up with tears as she remembered the day Christmas was ruined.  

The city argued that Allen should pay, even as it acknowledged that her mortgage lender had taken control of the house. Dunedin’s attorneys cited a state statute saying the lien the city placed on the house where the violation occurred applies to other personal property Allen owned.  

Hillard, Allen’s attorney, said forcing her to pay violated her right to due process because she didn’t know the violations even existed. Liens, Hillard argued, are tied to properties, not to a person.  

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Allen and her husband, a garage door technician, own a house just outside of Dunedin. They had planned to buy a new house and perhaps replace an old car. They had planned to save for college for their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. None of that is happening, Allen said, because the city’s lawsuit “totally crippled us.” 

To defend herself, Allen has spent thousands of dollars in legal expenses, each bill has grown bigger than her monthly mortgage. She said she has started paying for bills, such as her children’s summer camp, with her credit card. Soon, she’ll do the same with attorney fees, which she pays in installments.  

If she loses, Allen will be liable not only for the fines but also for Dunedin’s attorney fees. The city could garnish her paychecks.  

“I need my paycheck to live, for my children, for my house, for my car,” Allen said. 

She said she finds it hard to concentrate at work because she’s so worried she won’t be able to pay her lawyer, let alone for her children’s education. 

“I know it’s not personal to them. But it’s personal to me and the other people that they are doing this to,” Allen said, referring to Dunedin officials. “Take a look at who you’re hurting and how you’re hurting them. Is it worth it?”  

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Ocasio-Cortez Confronts Acting DHS Chief Over Border Agents’ Facebook Posts

Westlake Legal Group 5d31665a2600004900044dc9 Ocasio-Cortez Confronts Acting DHS Chief Over Border Agents’ Facebook Posts

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) confronted the acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan, on Thursday amid a report this month that DHS employees belonged to a secret Facebook group that shared violent, racist images among its members, including a photoshopped meme of the congresswomen being assaulted.

McAleenan was grilled by the freshman lawmaker during a hearing before the House Oversight Committee about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Ocasio-Cortez used her time to point to a July ProPublica report that uncovered the secret group, where around 9,500 members, some who belonged to Border Patrol, joked about migrant deaths and posted the violent memes.

During her questioning, she asked if the acting secretary had seen photoshopped images of herself shared in the group, and asked if any members of Border Patrol affiliated with them were still responsible for working with migrant women and children.

“Did you see the images of officers circulating photoshopped images of my violent rape?” the lawmaker asked. “Do you think that the policy of child separation could have contributed to a dehumanizing culture within CBP that contributes and kind of spills over into other areas of conduct?”

McAleenan replied that he had, but demurred about any potential Border Patrol officers that had been reprimanded to for their involvement, saying simply that some had been placed on “administrative duties.” An investigation by Customs and Border Patrol said this week it determined at least 62 current border agents were in the offensive group.

“We do not have a dehumanizing culture at CPB. This is an agency that rescues 4,000 people a year. It’s absolutely committed to the well-being of everyone that they interact with,” McAleenan replied. He went on to note that the posts were “unacceptable” and said he had ordered an ongoing investigation “within minutes” of learning about the group.

Ocasio-Cortez stood by her line of questioning on Twitter later that day, noting that in her estimation, Trump administration policies were “gravely dehumanizing” and had stripped “all involved of human decency.”

President Donald Trump and his immigration officials have faced a nonstop whirlwind of criticism over their hard-line border policies, including the short-lived but devastating “zero tolerance” policy that saw thousands of migrant children separated from their parents. Recently, border officials have been operating under the White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has seen thousands of asylum-seekers sent back across the southern border while they wait for their cases to be heard.

Lawmakers also fired blistering criticism at McAleenan amid ongoing reports of filthy, overcrowded conditions at migrant detention centers along the southern border.

“What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces? Can’t take a shower?” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the oversight committee, said during the hearing. “What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings.”

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Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong put a flag on the moon. Here's what you can and can't see in the iconic photo

CLOSEWestlake Legal Group icon_close Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong put a flag on the moon. Here's what you can and can't see in the iconic photo

Relive the tension and reserved emotion of Apollo 11, mankind’s first moon landing. USA TODAY

You know the photo: Buzz Aldrin, standing on the moon and saluting the American flag.

Zoom in. What’s really in the image? Why is the flag waving? Where are the stars? And how did those shadows get there?

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, USA TODAY spoke with experts at NASA and reviewed its archives to explain the most notable details in the famed photo. Spoiler alert: Not everything went as the space agency planned it.

The flag, a topic of many a conspiracy theory, probably toppled over when the astronauts departed, and medals for Soviet astronauts lie on the surface as well.

Here’s the backstory of what you’re seeing in the photograph.

Who’s in the suit? And how we got to the moon in the first place

On July 20, 1969, around 11:40 p.m. EDT, the scene depicted in one of the most iconic photos ever taken unfolded.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were more than 110 hours into the historic moon landing mission when they planted a U.S. flag. Video of the event was broadcast to millions back on Earth.

Interactive: The new race to the moon

Aldrin stepped to the side to raise his hand in salute. Armstrong stepped back to photograph the moment.

“It’s such an iconic image,” said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a historian for the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This has become part of American culture. … You see this photo in textbooks.”

The photo was taken during the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned moon landing. Aldrin and Armstrong landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface as Command Module Pilot Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit.

The mission came amid an intense space race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both the United States and the USSR rapidly advanced in technological achievements of spaceflight, a national security concern during the nuclear arms race. 

Space race: Apollo 11 moon landing celebrated as pioneering milestone, but it was really about winning the space race

Though the Soviet Union sent the first person into space, the United States took the lead in the space race when it landed two men on the moon.

About the flag: It fell over

Photos of the U.S. flag planted on the moon have been topics of conversations concerning patriotism and conspiracies ever since the world first saw stars and stripes on the lunar surface.

However, the flag probably isn’t still standing.

The working presumption at NASA is that the flag fell, said John Uri, manager of the Johnson Space Center History Office. Aldrin said he thought he saw the flag tip over from the exhaust when the lunar module lifted off, and the shadow of the flag is not visible in satellite images.

Celebrating 50 years: NASA put a man on the moon. Now, the Smithsonian is putting a rocket on the Mall

Uri said later Apollo missions placed flags farther from their lunar modules to prevent them from tipping over. It’s likely that the colors have faded over the years from extreme exposure, Uri said.

Why isn’t the flag drooping? 

As expected, hoisting a flag presented NASA engineers with a number of technical problems, Anne Platoff wrote in a paper in August 1993 for NASA on the history of the Apollo 11 flag.

Because the moon has no substantial atmosphere, NASA scientists led by Jack Kinzler designed a horizontal crossbar to support the flag and keep it from drooping down, Platoff wrote. 

A hem was sewn across the top of the 3-by-5-foot nylon flag so the bar could go through, then be lifted and locked into place at a 90 degree angle. The flagpole had a base that allowed it to more easily be driven into the moon’s surface, and a red circle was painted at 18 inches from the bottom to help judge how deep it needed to go.

The astronauts struggled to drive the flag’s base beyond 6 to 9 inches deep into the surface, which probably contributed to the flag falling.

The flag traveled to space tacked onto the ladder on the lunar module, so the astronauts could access it when they walked on the moon. A protective shroud was built to protect the flag from the heat from the engines.

Packing the flag involved a 12-step process and five people, Platoff wrote. Eleven steps were needed to mount the flag on the ladder. The astronauts were able to access it by removing pins and Velcro it was attached to. (And no, NASA didn’t invent Velcro during the Apollo missions, though it did popularize its use.)

What caused the ripples in the flag?

Many say the flag in the photo looks like it’s flowing in the wind. Conspiracy theorists cite this as evidence the moon landing was filmed in a warehouse with air conditioning creating the ripple. That’s false.

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The horizontal crossbar was supposed to give a slight wavy effect as in a breeze, Platoff wrote, and Aldrin and Armstrong said they had trouble pulling the flag out all the way.

What you can’t see: A golden olive branch and hidden messages

The flag was among various commemorative items that Aldrin and Armstrong left on the moon’s surface.

A stainless steel plaque noting the feat of the first manned moon landing, a silicon disc with messages from world leaders in tiny text and a small pouch with an Apollo 1 patch, medals honoring two Soviet astronauts and a small gold olive branch were also left on the moon, according to NASA

The patch commemorates Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died in a launchpad fire in 1967. 

7 things on the moon: Here’s what the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the moon

As for the Soviet medals, Aldrin and Armstrong honored Vladimir Komarov, who died during the Soyuz 1 mission when his parachute failed, and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space. NASA did not officially acknowledge at the time that the Soviet items were left on the moon.

Aldrin’s book “Men from Earth,” published in 1989, detailed the full contents of the packet they left, according to NASA.

The flagserves as “a sign of what America really accomplished,” Ross-Nazzal said. Though there were concerns that it would appear that the United States was “claiming” the moon, that was never the intention, she said.

“It shows a sense of accomplishment and proof that we’ve been there,” she said.

Why the footprints are so distinct

As Armstrong put it, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

When Aldrin and Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, they left well-defined footprints created by the outer boots of their spacesuits.

Voices: My tio’s unlikely journey from communist Cuba to key figure in Apollo 11 moon landing

“If we went back there today, the footprints would still be there,” Uri said. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can show the disturbed topsoil in areas on the moon where lunar modules have landed, rovers have roamed and astronauts have walked, he said.

The Apollo 11 crew described the lunar regolith, or soil, as “almost a little bit like wet sand,” Uri said. In reality, the regolith is made of rocks that have been ground up into a fine material over many years under the bombardment of micrometeorites and solar wind radiation. Because the moon has no atmosphere, liquid water or wind erosion, the regolith probably remains well-preserved, Uri said.

There were even some fears that when a lunar module landed on the moon, the surface would be so thick with dust that it would sink, Uri said.

Is that a moon rock in the bottom right corner?

Yes. Though the moon’s surface is mostly made up of the fine regolith, various rocks are scattered throughout.

The white specks seen in the background of the photo are probably lunar rocks reflecting light.

The astronauts found two main types of rocks at their landing: basalts and breccias, according to the Universities Space Research Association.

The basalts are 3.6 billion to 3.9 billion years old and solidified from molten lava. The breccias are fragments of older rocks broken up over the years by meteorites hitting the moon. Small rock fragments are sometimes fused under the intense heat and pressure of the impacts, forming breccias.

Aldrin and Armstrong collected samples of the regolith and up to 50 rocks during their mission.

The sky is black in the photograph. Why are there no stars in the background?

When people think of what it would be like in space, they might conjure images of a star-filled expanse. Though the stars are definitely there, none is visible in Armstrong’s photo. 

Conspiracy theorists who say NASA fabricated the moon landing cite this as evidence; however, there is a scientific explanation.

“The only time the astronauts really saw the stars clearly was when they were orbiting the moon and in the shadow of the moon,” Uri said. 

Sunlight reflecting off the moon’s surface washed out any of the light the stars emitted, Uri said, making them invisible in the photographs. Even the Earth’s own shine could be bright enough to block out the stars, he said.

Poll: Americans support NASA but not a return to the moon

The cameras did not use long enough exposure times to document the stars. Rather than focusing on space, the purpose of taking photos was to document the engineering feat of landing on the moon, Uri and Ross-Nazzal said.

Armstrong took most the photos the public associates with the landing. He used a 70mm Hasselblad, though NASA heavily modified the camera, so it would be easier to use while in a spacesuit. A variety of other cameras were also used during the mission.

According to the Universities Space Research Association, cameras operated using a trigger and were mounted on the front of the astronauts’ spacesuits, which discredits a popular conspiracy theory about not being able to see a camera in the reflection in Aldrin’s helmet in one photo Armstrong took. (We can thank NASA’s later work for the creation of small enough cameras for an essential device in our modern lives: the camera phone.)

What made the long dark shadow behind the flag?

The lunar module, the spacecraft Aldrin and Armstrong used to get from the main command and service module in lunar orbit to the moon’s surface, is seen in the top left of the photograph.

There were no external lights brightening up the photos and video taken of the mission. The light comes from sunlight and reflections off the moon’s surface, the astronauts’ suits and the lunar module.

Buzz Aldrin’s golden visor is shiny for a reason

Each piece of the astronauts’ spacesuit is meticulously designed and serves a very specific purpose.

What’s in the square pack on Aldrin’s back? The Personal Life Support System, or PLSS, according to Cathleen Lewis, spacesuit curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

“It provided oxygen, carbon dioxide cleaning, suit cooling, electronic communications to the astronaut,” Lewis said.

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Lewis said the suit was made from as many as 26 layers of material, including layers of Mylar, Dacron, Beta Marcasite and Kapton. The suit’s outer layer is Teflon-coated Beta cloth.

“Inside the suit, there are layers of high temperature nylon, fabric dipped in rubber, molded rubber, steel restraints, aluminum connectors, rubber gaskets, a double brass pressure zipper,” Lewis said.

The gloves they wore were constructed from a fabric called Chromel-R, a woven stainless steel that insulated their hands. The fingertips of the gloves were made from silicone rubber for sensitivity, according to the Air and Space Museum. 

Mysterious gray spots: What caused mysterious gray spots to appear on Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 moon landing glove?

To protect Aldrin’s eyes from the intense sun exposure, his helmet had inner and outer visors.

“Worn on top of the clear bubble helmet, the visor had shades and an outer visor that was a plastic with a monomolecular layer of gold. The gold acted as a sunscreen, much in the way that sky goggles do,” Lewis said.

They could have tripped on those wires in the bottom left

In the bottom left side of the photo, a series of cables appear to run along the moon’s surface toward the lunar module.

It was those wires, powering a video camera, that allowed millions of people worldwide to watch Aldrin and Armstrong during their extravehicular activity, the official name for their moonwalk.  

Because it was such a historic mission, NASA “wanted to share the experience with rest of the world,” Uri said.

Armstrong set up the camera so most of their activities would be visible to the millions back on Earth, according to the Universities Space Research Association. The setup went smoothly, but the wiring  created a tripping hazard for Armstrong and Aldrin.

According to Ross-Nazzal, the public affairs office at NASA pushed hard to get TV cameras on board spaceflights as early as the time of the Gemini missions. 

The astronauts and engineers feared the added weight and operation of the cameras would create unnecessary complications, and even when the first live televised mission occurred, Apollo 7, resistance persisted within NASA, Uri and Ross-Nazzal said.

“Pubic affairs thought the public needed to see what was going on and get excited about what was happening,” Ross-Nazzal said. “While the U.S. did it first, we really brought everyone else along.”

Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

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A Florida woman was fined $100,000 for a dirty pool and overgrown grass. When do fines become excessive?

States, cities and counties collect billions of dollars in fines. The Supreme Court raised the possibility that some are going too far.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Kristi Allen read the letter and thought it had to be a scam. 

It said she owed $92,600 in fines for overgrown vegetation and a stagnant swimming pool at a house she no longer owned. She must pay in two weeks, the letter said, hinting that she could be sued if she didn’t. Including interest charges and other fees, her debt swelled to $103,559, about twice her yearly income. 

Three months later, in late 2018, the city of Dunedin sued to collect, setting off another legal fight over how local governments use their power to impose heavy fines on citizens. What Allen, 38, a mother of two, thought had to be a scam turned into a nightmare she said could bankrupt her family. 

“I haven’t woken up from it yet,” she said. 

Dunedin, a small seaside city outside Tampa, cracks down on code violations, saddling homeowners with massive fines while its revenue grows. In 5½ years, the city has collected nearly $3.6 million in fines – sometimes tens of thousands at a time – for violating laws that prohibit grasses taller than 10 inches, recreational vehicles parked on streets at certain hours or sidings and bricks that don’t match.

The Supreme Court ruled in February that local governments can’t impose excessive fines. The decision is among the first constraints by the federal government on how much money cities and states can charge people for everything from speeding to overgrown lawns. But the court did not say what should be considered excessive, leaving local governments and residents with a question: How much is too much? 

Fines are a reliable source of revenue for cash-starved cities, and have become a big – and rapidly growing – business for local governments. States, cities and counties collected a total of $15.3 billion in fines and forfeitures in 2016, according to the most recent financial records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a 44% jump from a decade earlier. 

The Supreme Court’s decision should be a wake-up call for local governments that trap people in a never-ending cycle of debt, said Lisa Foster, a former Justice Department official who runs the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group. But the ruling has not reined in some of the most aggressive practices, in Dunedin and elsewhere. 

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Dunedin officials declined to be interviewed but insisted through a spokesman that the fines they impose were neither excessive nor abusive. Dunedin’s code enforcement policies are meant to “protect the integrity of neighborhoods and the quality of the community,” spokesman Ron Sachs said.  

City and county records show that at least 33 homeowners owed the city $20,000 or more in fines as of May. That tally does not include dozens of bank- and company-owned houses with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of code violations. In some cases, the fines seem to have more to do with aesthetics than public safety.  

The city fined a man nearly $30,000 because of a “chronic” overgrown yard. 

It fined a couple $31,000 for fixing their roof without a permit after a tree fell on it during a hurricane. 

“They’re using a shotgun to kill a mouse,” said Bill Prescott, who was fined $43,000 because of an inoperative car and a pile of dried leaves in his front yard and plants that grew over the street. Prescott, who lives with his wife in Tallahassee, said he became ill last year and couldn’t make the long drive to Dunedin to maintain their second home. Fines of $250 a day piled up without his knowledge, Prescott said.

“It just leaves me scratching,” he said.  

Homeowners struggle to pay fines in Dunedin, Fla. code enforcement violations

The city of Dunedin, Fla. may be running afoul of the Supreme Court with its aggressive code enforcement policy. Kristine Phillips reports.

USA TODAY

‘Almost Gestapo-like’

Allen moved to Dunedin in 2005 to be with her boyfriend, Keith, who  later became her husband. She bought a bungalow-style house on the same street where he was raised. It had a swimming pool and a backyard next to a popular hiking trail, so for someone who loves swimming and the outdoors, it seemed perfect. They planted palm trees in the yard and restored the pool that had sat empty for years.  

Then the financial crisis hit. Allen, a radiologic technologist, took a pay cut and lost her house in the wave of foreclosures that washed over Florida. She signed an agreement with U.S. Bank National Association allowing the foreclosure and moved out. She thought Dunedin was behind her.  

In early 2014, three years after Allen moved out, a code inspector came to the house, which had been vacant. Brown palm fronds littered the overgrown backyard. A neighbor told the inspector that something dead may have been rotting there. The swimming pool had turned into a bright green, mosquito-infested cesspool.  

City officials sent notices of the problems to Allen, who was still listed as the homeowner in county property records. Then they started fining her $100 a day. The letters mailed to Allen were returned undeliverable with no forwarding address. The city kept fining her anyway.  

Westlake Legal Group 52e349eb-0721-4026-ad3c-a76866b64da0-0605ZR_0043PM A Florida woman was fined $100,000 for a dirty pool and overgrown grass. When do fines become excessive?

Kristi Allen’s paperwork. Preston C. Mack, USA TODAY

Allen said none of this should have been her problem. As far as she knew, she relinquished ownership of the house when she agreed to the foreclosure in 2011. Her name stayed in property records because the foreclosure was not finalized until late 2014. By then, the city had been fining Allen for several months. (U.S. Bank National Association said it did not have control of Allen’s loan and referred questions about the case to the company that serviced Allen’s mortgage, which did not immediately respond.) 

The daily fines continued for the next two years until a code inspector visited the house again and saw it had been cleaned and renovated. For much of the time the fines were accumulating in 2015 and 2016, Allen no longer owned the house. 

Seeking to collect, Dunedin’s city attorney mailed the demand letter to Allen – this time to her current address. She looked up the attorney’s name online and realized the letter was real. 

“It defies common sense that someone could all of a sudden owe $100k where they had no idea there was even an issue,” her attorney, Ben Hillard, said. 

Allen isn’t the only homeowner to accuse Dunedin of overzealous code enforcement practices and say they were blindsided by a huge fine that accumulated for years. Others, such as Guillaume Picot, said they were fined daily even as they tried to fix the violations.  

After a tree smashed a corner of the roof of Picot’s rental property during Hurricane Irma two years ago, he bought $300 worth of wood and other supplies at Home Depot and fixed the damage himself. The city fined him $200 a day for fixing the roof without a permit. The fines racked up while Picot scrambled to find a locally licensed roofer who would sign off on his repairs. He and his wife owe about $31,000. 

“They’re not human with their decisions,” he said of Dunedin officials. 

Many of the debts have swelled so much that the city can’t collect them at all. Even when Dunedin settles for a smaller amount, it is less forgiving than other cities, said Chad Orsatti, an attorney from nearby Palm Harbor who said he has settled several Dunedin code enforcement cases on behalf of homeowners. 

“It’s almost Gestapo-like,” Orsatti said. “You can have a screw in the wrong spot. It’s an easy fix, but until you get that contractor to come back out there and sign off on it, those fines are running every day.” 

Sachs, the city spokesman, declined to comment about Allen’s case and those of other homeowners. He said fewer than 2% of the city’s code enforcement disputes end up with cumulative fines, and those that do involve homeowners “who have chosen to stay in violation” and have shown “disdain, disregard and disrespect for the rule of law and their neighborhoods.” 

Sachs said code enforcement is not about generating revenue for the city. 

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In Florida and elsewhere, unpaid fines can be attached to someone’s property through liens. That allows cities to foreclose and take the property to collect what they’re owed. In a performance review from 2015, a former Dunedin code enforcement officer, Michael Kepto, wrote that his goal was to “continue to be a financial asset to the city by the amounts of liens collected.”  

Kepto said city officials never asked him to pursue more liens to generate revenue. He said the city was inundated with vacant properties that banks had foreclosed at the time he wrote the performance review.  

Dunedin expects to make a little more than $1 million this year from fines and forfeitures. That’s about five times as much as the city made a decade ago.   

‘Deprivation and punishment’

The ways in which cities levy fines has been under scrutiny since at least 2015, when Ferguson, Missouri’s law enforcement became a national symbol of racial bias in policing after the shooting death of a young black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a  white police officer. The Justice Department cleared the officer of wrongdoing but published a scathing report describing the city’s municipal court system as a moneymaking enterprise that trapped poor and predominantly black residents in an endless spiral of debt and incarceration. 

Hard-to-pay fines spring up seemingly everywhere, as cities look for ways to punish violations and collect money without raising taxes.  

In Miami, traffic violations usually add up to hundreds of dollars. Collection agencies also add a 40% surcharge, meaning someone with several tickets can owe fines of $3,000 to $7,000. 

Doraville, Georgia, fined one homeowner $1,000 for stacking firewood in his backyard, according to a lawsuit that accuses the city of aggressive ticketing practices. A government newsletter said in 2015 that Doraville’s court system, which collects the fines, brings in “over $3 million annually” and “contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.” 

“What we have seen is an increasing tendency of municipalities to criminalize, or at least heavily fine, behavior that not many people would describe as bad,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fees and Fines Justice Center. “Letting your lawn grow too high arguably is not the most serious offense.” 

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Charles Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, said most fines, which are generally a small portion of local governments’ revenue, are in place to correct bad behavior. 

“The interest of government is not to collect revenue from bad behavior. It’s to get compliance,” he said.  

Fines in some cases have become so big that they make it impossible for people to pay, let alone fix the violations that got them in trouble, said Robert Eckard, a Tampa lawyer representing another Dunedin homeowner. 

“It’s like setting someone up for failure,” Eckard said. “It’s deprivation and punishment for people who don’t have the income to remedy the problem.” 

Last year, the chief justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court condemned governments’ reliance on fines to make money. 

“Courts are centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in a letter to her fellow judges urging them not to succumb to pressure to generate revenue through the court system.  

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court took a step to upend cities and states’ ability to decide for themselves when fines are appropriate.  

That case started when prosecutors in Indiana went to court to demand that a man convicted of a minor drug charge forfeit his $42,000 Land Rover. The car was worth four times as much as the maximum possible fine for the crime, but the government’s attorneys argued that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines did not apply to cities and states.  

The Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled unanimously that the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “excessive fines,” restricts the fees state and local governments can impose. 

“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield through Anglo-American history for good reason,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “Such fines undermine other liberties.” 

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The Supreme Court’s decision alone will not stop municipalities’ aggressive practices, said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who oversaw the Ferguson investigation. Instead, she said, it will take more lawsuits to flesh out the limit for what constitutes an excessive fine. 

One lawsuit was filed in May against Dunedin. 

The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties group, sued the city after it fined a homeowner nearly $30,000 over an overgrown lawn. City officials, who described the homeowner as a chronic violator, also sought to foreclose on his house.  

The ability to impose heavy fines and to foreclose on people’s property “are awesome powers” that should be used against institutional landlords, not homeowners, said Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. 

‘Look at who you’re hurting’

Last year, four days before Christmas, Allen received another letter from the city. It told her she had been sued.  

“How much are they suing you for?” Allen recalled her husband asking. 

“$103,” she responded, giving a shortened version of the debt she could not pay.  

Their son overheard and offered to use his own savings to pay his mother’s debt. 

“He’s like, ‘Oh, Mommy, I have $103. I’ll give you $103,’ ” Allen said, her voice shaking and her eyes welling up with tears as she remembered the day Christmas was ruined.  

The city argued that Allen should pay, even as it acknowledged that her mortgage lender had taken control of the house. Dunedin’s attorneys cited a state statute saying the lien the city placed on the house where the violation occurred applies to other personal property Allen owned.  

Hillard, Allen’s attorney, said forcing her to pay violated her right to due process because she didn’t know the violations even existed. Liens, Hillard argued, are tied to properties, not to a person.  

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Allen and her husband, a garage door technician, own a house just outside of Dunedin. They had planned to buy a new house and perhaps replace an old car. They had planned to save for college for their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. None of that is happening, Allen said, because the city’s lawsuit “totally crippled us.” 

To defend herself, Allen has spent thousands of dollars in legal expenses, each bill has grown bigger than her monthly mortgage. She said she has started paying for bills, such as her children’s summer camp, with her credit card. Soon, she’ll do the same with attorney fees, which she pays in installments.  

If she loses, Allen will be liable not only for the fines but also for Dunedin’s attorney fees. The city could garnish her paychecks.  

“I need my paycheck to live, for my children, for my house, for my car,” Allen said. 

She said she finds it hard to concentrate at work because she’s so worried she won’t be able to pay her lawyer, let alone for her children’s education. 

“I know it’s not personal to them. But it’s personal to me and the other people that they are doing this to,” Allen said, referring to Dunedin officials. “Take a look at who you’re hurting and how you’re hurting them. Is it worth it?”  

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