Punishment for not correcting serious code violations

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: A legitimate complaint was made against a neighbor's property for serious and dangerous code violations, which they can't rectify due to lack of money.

What happens to the elderly man who owns the house in this scenario? What assets of his can be seized, and can he be jailed for this?

Editors Reply: Our answer is general; each city could have its own wrinkles to this problem, but usually here is the way this is handled.

A municipal judge hears and rules on code violation cases. Often this judge is a part-time employee or contractor, and a full-time attorney elsewhere. Occasionally, especially in larger cities, there is an administrative hearing officer who deals with alleged code violations.

Typically the code enforcement officer who issued the citation for the code violations is asked to testify by describing briefly and informally the violation. Often photos are used. Then usually the judge gives the defendant, in this case your neighbor, a chance to speak. Occasionally defendants are accompanied by an attorney, but in most cities the defendants are speaking for themselves.

A municipal judge with any savvy at all will be able to get the defendant to admit right away that he or she is not taking action because they don't have the money. The judge's response at that point may range all the way from, "well, find the money," to "I understand." Often municipal judges will read lightly if they are convinced that an elderly defendant truly can't afford the repairs. These judges aren't necessarily tied into municipal politics and take a broader view than the code enforcement officer.

The tendency is to issue continuances from month to month, letting that whole situation drag on without any real punishment. Or the judge may impose a fine for every day that the code violation continues. If the violation isn't resolved (they will call it "abated"), and the fines are not paid, most states allow a range of punishments. This includes jail time.

However, jail sentences rarely are imposed, and if they are, they are usually suspended once the defendant promises to do the work.

As for seizing assets, we can't think of a single example in our experience where state law has permitted this.

What is more probable in your state and city is that the city may have the legal power to do the work and then charge the property owner for it. If unpaid after a few months, that debt then is recorded as a lien on the property. When the owner sells or dies, the city then would collect its money.

This procedure actually is very common for code infractions such as lawns that are not mowed. But this procedure would be a bit more unusual for structural defects of a building, although many codes allow for this. We are aware of a couple of states where the lien procedure is considered ineffective because the liens are not collected at tax sales.

This describes the range of common punishments. As you can see, the municipal judge has considerable discretion about how to handle code violations.

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