California Lawmakers Look to Stop Cities from Billing Citizens Thousands for Their Own Prosecutions

A bill would stop the use of private lawyers to try to force residents to pay massive fees for minor crimes.


Dmitry Rukhlenko / Dreamstime.com

A bill passed by the California Assembly would put an end to a practice in which several cities have been contracting with private prosecutors to handle nuisance abatement cases, then billing the impacted citizens thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees.

A $5,600 prosecution fee for keeping chickens illegally on a property and a $31,000 prosecution fee for home improvements built without a permit are just two examples of the eye-popping enforcement techniques that have been happening in California desert cities like Indio and Coachella.

Here's how it worked: The cities set up code enforcement and nuisance abatement laws that called for criminal prosecutions, then contracted out those prosecutions to a law firm named Silver & Wright (this firm actually developed the original concept and pitched it to the cities). The law firm then prosecuted the cases and got defendants to plead guilty, pay a small fine, and agree to fix the problem. A few months later, Silver & Wright billed them for their own prosecutions. The firm's demands for money included threats of liens on their properties if they did not pay. If they attempted to appeal, they were billed even more to cover the firm's costs of fighting the appeal.

These money-mongering tactics were investigated and exposed by journalists at the Desert Sun and subsequently prompted a class action lawsuit filed by the lawyers at the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm. Those lawyers hope to stop this practice and get the money returned to the property owners.

It looks like the days are numbered for this tactic. A bipartisan duo of lawmakers introduced the bill to formally forbid California cities and counties from engaging in this practice. The remarkably short AB2495 adds a single sentence to the state's code that reads, "A city, county, or city and county, including an attorney acting on behalf of a city, county, or city and county, shall not charge a defendant for the costs of investigation, prosecution, or appeal in a criminal case, including, but not limited to, a criminal violation of a local ordinance."

One of the Assembly members sponsoring the law, Republican Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley, said he had been hearing complaints but credited the Desert Sun's reporting for pushing him to introduce the legislation.

The bill unanimously passed the state Assembly and now heads to the Senate. According to a report by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, the bill has no registered opposition.

The cities involved initially defended the practice. But last week, the city manager of Indio reversed position and told the Desert Sun he supported the reform bill.