Calling the conditions in his yard “a hodgepodge of furniture and a hodgepodge of trash and debris. . . a collection that has only grown despite efforts to convince her to clean up [it] up,” an Ohio appeals court upheld Elena Hammock’s conviction for violating a City of Norwood ordinance prohibiting the accumulation or dumping of trash on the property.
In October 2019, Dale Marshall, the city’s health inspector, visited Ms Hammock’s home with a notice to vacate the property due to a lack of running water. He was not looking forward to this trip and had asked several police officers to accompany him. Ms. Hammock had a long history of confrontations with her neighbors and the city. While there, Mr Marshall saw a large amount of litter and debris in his yard, which led to an order requiring him to clean up the property within 15 days. The city subsequently granted his request for an additional 60 days to complete the work. About eight months later, however, the property remained mostly in the same condition.
The city filed a criminal complaint against Ms Hammock, in July 2020, in Hamilton County Municipal Court. He alleged that she “knowingly failed to remove all rubbish, trash, trash, trash, debris, trash and other unsightly and/or unsanitary items from her property” and continued to “destroy the exterior of his property”. The language was based on a municipal ordinance which reads:
No one shall place, leave, throw or allow the accumulation of garbage, waste,
waste, debris, trash or other materials. . . in any location. . . in the city, so that the
same . . . will constitute an unsightly aspect with regard to the character of the
Ms. Hammock initially responded to the complaint on her own; a public defender later represented her. She claimed she couldn’t clean the property due to continuous harassment from her neighbors – they had apparently been arguing for almost a decade – and because her van broke down. She also tried to secure body camera footage and other evidence showing an alleged assault by Norwood police when she called them to intervene in previous neighbor disputes. As she saw it, the town and its neighbors colluded to drive her out of her home.
At trial, Mr Marshall and Sean Kenan, one of the neighbors who allegedly caused Ms Hammock problems, gave evidence for the prosecution. Mr. Marshall said he took the photos in his yard, and the city introduced those photos into evidence. The floor was barely visible in the photos due to piles of wooden pallets, boxes, containers, furniture and appliances, and heaps of nothing more than debris and trash.
Because the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted many activities in early 2020, Mr Marshall said, he gave Ms Hammock more than the extra 60 days she requested to clean the property. Passing by her house periodically, he could see that she was making no progress in cleaning. Indeed, garbage collection was getting worse. It was then that he decided to take the case to court.
Mr Kenan testified that he had lived next door to Ms Hammock for six years and that his accumulation of bric-a-brac posed a problem from the start. He and others have been involved with her in previous court cases. In one, a judge ordered a Rumpke dumpster placed in her home. When he sentenced the defendants to community service, they were asked to help him get rid of his belongings. Mr Kenan told the court she routinely left her house on weekdays and returned with piles of door frames, rusty cooking grates, polystyrene buckets and other rubbish. He claimed he and his family could not enjoy their backyard. Her property smells like raw sewage, he said, and the standing water she collects in five-gallon buckets creates mosquito infestations.
Testifying in her own defence, Ms Hammock did not deny the accumulation of debris in her yard, but tried to justify it. She accused Mr Kenan, his girlfriend and daughter of stalking her for years, throwing rubbish in her yard and then calling the health department. She explained that she roamed the streets on trash nights and scavenged from the sidewalks anything she thought was reusable or salable to make money, but her plans were thwarted by Mr Kenan who she said , had damaged his van.
She conceded that the materials in her yard weren’t organized “as much as I like, probably not as much as people like, but I tried to do what I could”. She mentioned having a disability that prevents her from cleaning the yard, but she declined to have an assessment at the court clinic to determine if an accommodation might be appropriate.
The jury found Ms Hammock guilty of breaching the order. The trial judge postponed his sentencing and requested a report on the advisability of treatment given the issues that arose throughout the trial. The judge ordered him to start cleaning the property and gave him 30 days to do so before considering his sentence.
Could anyone have been surprised when Mrs. Hammock failed to clean up her yard and push back against court-ordered assessments? Her reasons: she had been “bullied” by everyone involved and “no pill can help bullying”. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $200.
On appeal, his lawyer argued that the words “an unsightly appearance in view of the character of the neighborhood” are unconstitutionally vague, preventing ordinary people from understanding what activity is prohibited. Further, she argued that the order had no rational connection to a legitimate governmental purpose and could in no way be enforced under the Constitution. The Court of Appeal was not convinced.
An ordinance may be declared unconstitutional for reasons of vagueness. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the enforcement of any law or other regulation that prohibits or requires an act in terms so vague or confusing that a person of average intelligence must guess its meaning or how it is applied. The legislative text should clearly state what is not permitted and provide reasonably specific guidance to law enforcement officials.
Initially, the committee noted “the legitimate interest of government in maintaining the aesthetics of the community and, as such, aesthetic considerations may be taken into account by the legislative body.” . . The court then turned to the constitutional issue.
“[T]The order in this court provides guidance on the conduct that constitutes a violation. * * * [T]The ordinance here explains that ‘[n]o no one should place, leave, dump or allow to accumulate “any rubbish – in other words, it requires action on someone’s part”, the opinion said. “Furthermore, Ms Hammock does not dispute any vagueness in the words ‘waste’, ‘waste’ or the like, as she limits her attack to the ‘unsightly appearance’ aspect of the order.”
With respect to Merriam-Webster, who defines “unsightly” as “not pleasing to the eye; unappealing”, the panel concluded: “The prescription is specific enough to advise a person of ordinary intelligence that he should not accumulate garbage or other materials in her yard to the point that it becomes unappealing to the people who live around her.
state against hammock, Nos. C-210518, C-210620, Ohio CT. App., First Dist., October 7, 2022.