Andrew Dys

Court: Clover man has too much junk in his yard

At 78, disabled Korean War veteran John Ramsey of Clover - trying to support himself and his disabled wife on $898 a month in Social Security and veterans benefits - finds "junk" and sells "junk."

Ramsey does so to pay the monthly water bill at his mobile home and buy medicine for his sick wife.

Between picking up the junk - freezers and stoves, building materials and all kinds of stuff - and selling the junk later at a scrap yard, the junk, Ramsey admitted Monday in court, is piled in the side yard and behind his house.

Yes, there was and is plenty of junk at Ramsey's house. Too much junk, said the town of Clover. For a year the town has wanted Ramsey to clean up his junk.

The town sent Ramsey a letter in February asking him to clean up the yard. Ramsey did not. He kept selling junk at scrap yards and bringing in new junk.

Ramsey was cited in June for violating Clover's nuisance law, which prohibits "unsightly" debris and "junk." Ramsey asked for a jury trial - facing a month in jail if convicted.

"I figured I was just trying to make enough money to live on," Ramsey said. "Wasn't hurting nobody."

So Ramsey went to trial Monday, just the second code enforcement trial in Clover in the past two years, officials said, maybe more.

Joe Funderburk, Clover's code enforcement officer, told the court about the yard and showed pictures. He said he gave Ramsey time to clean up the yard before issuing the citation.

But Ramsey's lawyer, assistant public defender Judah VanSyckel, claimed that the law is too vague because "unsightly" is not defined clearly.

Ramsey's hustle to make a few dollars was the only way for Ramsey to pay his bills, VanSyckel argued. Ramsey should be lauded, VanSyckel said, not slapped with a criminal citation by a "rogue code enforcement official."

"This case is about money, justice and freedom," VanSyckel told the jury. "He's doing what Americans do to provide and survive."

Here's what the law is in Clover: It is illegal for "occupied and vacant lots upon which building materials, glass, wood, discarded and unused products and machinery, junk, or other matter or debris which is unsightly or detrimental to public health, sanitation, or safety is allowed to accumulate."

All sides agreed no neighbors had complained. Nobody bothered Ramsey except the town.

But Funderburk, the code officer, claimed that Ramsey's "junk" violated Clover's laws, could be a haven for vermin, and threatened the property values of the mobile homes around where Ramsey lives.

Just because nobody complained, he said, doesn't make Ramsey's junk legal.

Ramsey countered that he regularly calls police about drug dealers and gives out "Pepsi-Colas" to neighbor kids, and that no problems with animals had ever been found by anyone.

Ramsey was convicted in the 1980s of burning a cross in the front yard of then-Police Chief David Morton. That conviction was overturned on appeal. Ramsey claims he took the fall for two other men.

Both Ramsey and his family said Monday that the Ku Klux Klan is in his past.

"I get along with everybody," said Ramsey.

Monday's trial at the Clover Community Center lasted almost three hours, with Funderburk and VanSyckel arguing about what is unsightly and what is junk.

Ramsey testified that he plans to use the building materials on the mobile home next door, that he uses several lawn mowers for cutting grass or spare parts, that he piles up stuff neatly, and most importantly, that he keeps the front of his house spotless.

"I keep my front yard pretty all the time," Ramsey said of the yard facing the cul-de-sac where he lives.

Nobody argued that the front yard isn't nicely kept. It was the side and back where the word "junk" was thrown around like, well, pieces of junk.

Everybody involved used the word junk.

The side yard - as shown in Funderburk's pictures from January 2011, two weeks ago and just Monday morning - was filled with stuff that even Ramsey called "junk," stuff he later sells.

A jury of six men took just 10 minutes to find Ramsey guilty.

Clover Municipal Judge Melvin Howell sentenced Ramsey to 30 days in jail, but suspended the sentence and ordered him to clean up his yard.

Funderburk, the town enforcement officer, testified that he "sympathizes" with Ramsey's fixed income and that he's trying to make a few extra dollars - but standards must be kept.

"The town of Clover is not in this to make money," Funderburk said. "We just want the property cleaned up."

Back at the mobile home after the trial, Ramsey's wife, Patty, said, "It's not right that my husband sells junk to pay the water bill and get money for my medicine, and this town tells him he can't do it."

VanSyckel said he will appeal the verdict. He said the town law is vague because there is no real definition of "unsightly" except what a code enforcement officer says it is.

"This law violates the tenets of our constitutional republic," VanSyckel said.

After court, Ramsey said he didn't get a fair shake for just trying to make a few bucks.

"I wanted a jury trial of my peers," he said, "and I got one."

And he lost.

"I just am trying to make a little bit of money. Is that a crime?"

Yes, in Clover, junk piled in the yard is a crime.