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Steffy v. City of Fort Smith

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions IV, I

March 7, 2018



          Lisa-Marie Norris, for appellant.

          John Settle, for appellee.

          RITA W. GRUBER, Chief Judge

         At issue in this case is the constitutionality of several nuisance ordinances adopted by the City of Fort Smith. Appellant Noah Steffy appeals from a jury's verdict finding him guilty of violating the ordinances by failing to maintain his premises. He does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence on appeal but argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to dismiss the case based on its determination that the ordinances are not unconstitutional. We affirm his conviction.

         I. Facts

         In March 2016, the neighborhood-services department of the City of Fort Smith received several complaints from appellant's neighbors about his property at 2405 High Street in Fort Smith. One of the neighbors testified at trial that the front of the house looked like a "junk yard"; there was trash everywhere; and the grass was up to your knees, at times "up to 18 inches." According to this neighbor, the junk included car parts, tires, wheels, wood, bicycles, old swing sets-"you name it, it was there." In response to the complaints, Brandon Haynes, the property-maintenance inspector at the time, visited the property on March 22, 2016, to inspect the property and take photos. He testified that there were numerous violations of the city ordinances, including trash, debris, open storage of building materials, lumber, tires, dead limbs, and overgrowth in the yard; sections of fencing down; mattress bedsprings and a refrigerator in the yard; and indoor furniture, including a desk, on the front porch. He testified that the pile of dead limbs was a good place for rodents, mosquitos, and snakes.

         Rick Ruth, the property-maintenance supervisor for the neighborhood-services department, testified that he inspected appellant's property on March 31, 2016, and observed trash and debris; dead limbs on the ground; car tires and a refrigerator in the backyard; and "just overgrown conditions." He testified that when it rains or snows, moisture collects in the tires. He said that it takes very little for mosquitos to breed in the collected water and that mosquitos carry the West Nile virus and the Zika virus and that mosquitos are responsible for causing heartworms in dogs and other animals. He stated that because tires hold water, they are a health issue and should be put up and stored away. Regarding dead limbs, trash, and debris in the yard, Mr. Ruth testified that they hold moisture and rot; draw termites and other insects; and create breeding and nesting grounds for snakes, rodents, and vermin.

         Mr. Ruth testified that he had spoken with appellant and attempted to work with him to correct the problem, even bringing him a lawn mower when appellant indicated he did not own one. Mr. Ruth offered to meet appellant to walk around the property and advise him what needed to be done to comply with the ordinances. He testified that he visited the property again on May 3, 2016, and saw very little change from his visit on March 31, 2016. He testified that the property remained in violation of the nuisance ordinances when he visited on May 17, 2016, which prompted him to fill out an affidavit for criminal summons regarding the violations.

         On August 17, 2016, appellant was found guilty in district court of failing to care for the premises. He appealed to the circuit court, where a jury found him guilty and fined him $510. Before his trial, he filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the ordinances he was accused of violating are unconstitutional because they are vague, arbitrary, and do not further a compelling, important state interest. The circuit court found that the vague-and-arbitrary challenge had no merit. The court's order then stated that appellant had argued that the ordinance did not "further a compelling intent" and that the City of Fort Smith pointed out the interest in the health, safety, and welfare of its residents. The court found that "the City is correct, " and it denied appellant's motion.

         Appellant's sole point on appeal is that the ordinances are unconstitutional because they violate due process and are void for vagueness. We disagree and affirm appellant's conviction.

         II. City Ordinances & Authority

         Municipal corporations derive their legislative powers from the general laws of the State. Ark. Const. art 12 § 4; Phillips v. Town of Oak Grove, 333 Ark. 183, 189, 968 S.W.2d 600, 603 (1998). The State has authorized cities to legislate under the police power in Arkansas Code Annotated section 14-55-102 (Repl. 1998). That section gives cities the general power to enact ordinances that "shall seem necessary to provide for the safety, preserve the health, promote the prosperity, and improve the morals, order, comfort, and convenience of such corporations and the inhabitants thereof." Ark. Code Ann. § 14-55-102 (Repl. 1998). Under the State's grant of power, cities and incorporated towns can "[p]revent injury or annoyance within the limits of the municipal corporation from anything dangerous, offensive, or unhealthy and cause any nuisance to be abated within the jurisdiction given the board of health in § 14-262-102[.]" Ark. Code Ann. § 14-54-103. In addition, and specifically relevant here, Arkansas Code Annotated section 14-54-901 provides as follows:

Incorporated towns and cities of the first and second class are empowered to order the owner of lots and other real property within their towns or cities to cut weeds; to remove garbage, rubbish, and other unsightly and unsanitary articles and things upon the property; and to eliminate, fill up, or remove stagnant pools of water or any other unsanitary thing, place, or condition which might become a breeding place for mosquitoes, flies, and germs harmful to the health of the community, after the town or city has provided therefor by an ordinance to that effect.

         We have long recognized a city's plenary duty to exercise its police powers in the interest of the public health and safety of its inhabitants. Phillips, 333 Ark. at 189, 968 S.W.2d at 603 (citing Springfield v. City of Little Rock, 226 Ark. 462, 290 S.W.2d 620 (1956)).

         The underlying nuisance ordinances that appellant was charged with violating concern the care of premises and provide that it is unlawful for the owner or occupier ...

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