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Minor Violations Lead to Massive Prosecution Fees in Two California Desert Towns

A couple of busted windows can result in a bill for thousands—even tens of thousands—of dollars.

IndioCourtesy of Indio City HallA couple of cities in the California desert have found a novel and remarkably cruel way to make money—force citizens to pay for the privilege of being prosecuted by the attorneys contracting with these cities.

We've seen cities across the country abuse their own citizens—particularly its poorest residents and visitors—with vicious enforcement of petty laws designed to create a revenue stream via a cascade of fines and fees.

But I don't think we've seen an enforcement mechanism as nasty and cruel as the one the Desert Sun has uncovered out in California's Inland Empire. The cities of Indio and Coachella partnered up with a private law firm, Silver & Wright, to prosecute citizens in criminal court for violations of city ordinances that call for nothing more than small fines—things like having a mess in your yard or selling food without a business license.

Those cited for these violations fix the problems and pay the fines, a typical code enforcement story. The kicker comes a few weeks or months later when citizens get a bill in the mail for thousands of dollars from the law firm that prosecuted them. They are forcing citizens to pay for the private lawyers used to take them to court in the first place. So a fine for a couple of hundred dollars suddenly becomes a bill for $3,000 or $20,000 or even more.

In Coachella, a man was fined $900 for expanding his living room without getting a permit. He paid his fine. Then more than a year later he got a bill in the mail from Silver & Wright for $26,000. They told him that he had to pay the cost of prosecuting him, and if he didn't, they could put a lien on his house and the city could sell it against his will. When he appealed the bill they charged him even more for the cost of defending against the appeal. The bill went from $26,000 to $31,000.

Brett Kelman of the Desert Sun found 18 cases in Indio and Coachella where people received inordinately high legal bills for small-time violations. A woman fined for hanging Halloween decorations across a city street received legal bill for $2,700. When she challenged it, the bill jumped to $4,200.

Kelman notes that these thousands of dollars in fees came from a single court hearing that lasted minutes.

Silver & Wright representatives declined to talk to the Desert Sun. One of them even claimed attorney/client privilege even though they're serving as prosecutors on behalf of city governments. But the law firm's web site makes it very clear that what happened is not a mistake. It's a law firm focused on helping cities go after private properties for "nuisance abatement" and code enforcement. Among its services is "ordinance drafting." That they offer such services matters because, according to the Desert Sun, the two cities contracted with the law firm first, and then they crafted brand new nuisance ordinances to facilitate Silver & Wright recouping the fees by billing citizens for their own prosecutions without having to go through a judge.

"Cost recovery" is another emphasis of Silver & Wright's services. Here's a direct quote from their site: "Our attorneys have developed unique and cutting edge practices to achieve success for our clients and make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral or even revenue producing." [emphasis added]

They're openly bragging about using prosecutions as a way to help cities make money.

And then there's this buried deep in the story: Matthew Silver, one of the firm's partners, is also a vice president for the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers. He runs a private law firm but also leads a professional association for government employees responsible for enforcing the laws that lead to his firm's billable hours (or minutes, it seems).

In response the Desert Sun's investigations, it appears that Coachella officials will rethink their methods. Indio's interim city manager and a council member, however, defended the harsh enforcement, insisting this "aggressive approach" was getting results. This aggressive approach apparently includes an $18,600 bill for having overgrown grass, two broken windows, and a "sun-damaged address number."

Read more from the Desert Sun here.

Photo Credit: Via Indio City Hall

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  • Necron 99||

    Christ, what an asshole.

  • gah87||

    You're an attorney for Silver & Wright?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Pluralize, please.

  • MoreFreedom||

    With this kind of arrangement, why are citizens paying taxes?

    This kind of arrangement is really going too far in outsourcing government. It creates a conflict of interest, in that the outside firm has every incentive to use more force against citizens and run up bills because they all of a sudden, have the ability to make citizens pay for the force they are using against them.

    Consider if we allowed some firm to arrest, prosecute, jail and force people to pay the firm for what they do? Or a firm to build roads and make people pay for them. Who's watching them?

  • Juice||

    So....killdozer?

  • Rhywun||

    "When a woodchipper just won't do"

  • BYODB||

    I'm thinking 'anvil dropped from synchronous orbit' on this one. Just to be sure, and because I love Loony Tunes.

  • Longtobefree||

    Acme Little Giant anvil?

  • tommyboy||

    You'd have to charge them fees to cover the cost of the anvil drop.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Or a bump stock.

  • GroundTruth||

    Reminds me of the good ol' days in the Soviet Union: after someone was executed, a bill was sent to the family for the bullets.

  • Curtisls701||

    Call me naive, but I don't see how these bills can actually be enforced. The city was the one who contracted with Silver & Wright, not the court system. I know, FYTW. sigh...

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The city government was elected to represent the people of the city, and therefore the people of the city chose to contract with Silver & Wright, so it's all legit.

    This is where the logic of democratic-republicanism takes you.

  • CE||

    I thought libertarians were pro-privatization.....

    On the plus side the code violators are paying the lawyers, not the taxpayers.

    On the down side, this sounds like pure graft.

  • Mark22||

    No, libertarians are pro-free-market. Free markets require private enterprise, but the converse isn't true: not all private enterprise activity is free market.

    Fascists+progressivists for example promote private enterprise (regulated markets, "socially responsible" corporations, etc.), but oppose free markets.

  • ||

    Free markets require private enterprise, but the converse isn't true: not all private enterprise activity is free market.

    ^ This.

    "Your address wasn't that easy to read, so I hired a lawyer to write a law that says I can fine you. Here's a bill for his services" is not "free market."

  • gaoxiaen||

    + 100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwe dollars (or a buck-fifty US)

  • Zeb||

    Libertarians are also opposed to telling people what they can do on their private property.

  • tommyboy||

    I thought smug socialists approve of government graft and have poor reasoning skills. Oh yeah, I was right. Thanks for the example.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I think you meant "legit".

  • Kivlor||

    Enforceability will rely on a lot of factors. If any of these citizens want to challenge it, I would suggest digging into the city charter, and see if the city has the authority to delegate this to a third, private party. If they don't, you've got a chance.

    Years ago in my hometown where the city delegated both the issuing and collecting of parking tickets to a private group. A very wealthy local guy went about collecting several hundred parking tickets, refused to pay them, and sued based on the fact that the city's own charter did not grant them the authority to delegate such powers to private groups. It also turned out the private group's board of directors had accidentally let their bond expire and they were personally on the hook... twas a teachable moment.

  • gaoxiaen||

    +1 bailout, or forgiveness/forgetfulness

  • Ken Hagler||

    "sun-damaged address number"

    This particular charge is a particularly good illustration of the petty greed and cruelty of the government. For those not aware, Indio is located in the Sonoran Desert. It's blindingly sunny nearly all the time with temperatures over 100F much of the year. You'd have an easier time finding address numbers that _aren't_ sun-damaged in that sort of environment.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Guaranteed revenue stream for the city!

  • CE||

    And their connected law firm!

  • gah87||

    Your cactus is too shaggy. Pay up.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I am employing a lawyer to respond to the allegations that I shagged that cactus. You will be responsible for legal costs unless you show up at my place with a pair of tweezers and some tincture of iodine.

  • Kivlor||

    I highly recommend that people read the maintenance code for the city they live in. It's usually pretty horrific. Most cities use the International Property Maintenance Code, and can fine you if even the smallest part of your property has chipped paint. They used to include (not sure if the current one does) a clause that stated that any exterior violation granted code enforcement a right to enter your home and inspect the interior (without a warrant). These codes are horrific.

  • Kivlor||

    Another ridiculous "violation" that comes to mind is "cracked concrete" where they actually define hairline cracks as being dangerous and a violation. Where I live, any concrete more than 2 years old will have cracks due to the movement of the soil. So all but the newest homes are automatically in violation.

  • bailers77||

    "any exterior violation granted code enforcement a right to enter your home and inspect the interior (without a warrant). "

    I live in a large southern state. Guarantee the don't have that here.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Fuck zoning. Times infinity. They're all BTK.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Or whatever that zoning officer called himself.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    As an example of a case that should've been handled differently, Lopez cited the Coachella home with the junk-filled yard who had been billed $25,200. In hindsight, the property was "not a great candidate for prosecution" because its violations "did not represent an imminent threat to the public health and safety," Lopez said.

    I'm sure that forced introspection will be a great comfort to the constituents being rent-sought.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Most attorneys make it through law school without becoming irredeemable pieces of shit, but Matthew Silver followed a different path.

  • sarcasmic||

    Most attorneys make it through law school without becoming irredeemable pieces of shit

    You imply that they weren't that way when they entered law school.

  • gaoxiaen||

    A few become ideologues. It's a good vocation, but they're not rich. Unless they defend someone like OJ.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Guess the penalty amounts if they knew for sure citizens didn't have guns.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Something something bill of rights, excessive fines.

    Take it to federal court. This shit has to be fought.

    -jcr

  • Mark22||

    Sell your house and move.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Then get a $25000 fine from the city for the cost of changing the name on the deed.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Then get a $25000 fine from the city for the cost of changing the name on the deed.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Increased by $5000 for squirrels.

  • Longtobefree||

    Please do not feed the squirrels, it makes them want more.

  • ||

    And the question is, why is there an obligation of everyone else in the city to pay these court cost when she knew from the beginning that she did the violations?

    Because its called due process, idiot. She may have known, but the city didn't.

  • Bra Ket||

    "Cost recovery" is another emphasis of Silver & Wright's services. Here's a direct quote from their site: "Our attorneys have developed unique and cutting edge practices to achieve success for our clients and make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral or even revenue producing." [emphasis added]

    They're openly bragging about using prosecutions as a way to help cities make money."


    Not the least bit unique or cutting-edge.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Plus or minus (whose team are you on?) one ticket for lapsed inspection sticker for a classic car parked on private property, albeit without a garage to protect it.

  • Bubba Jones||

    My first inclination was to report a stack of petty offenses by the city council. But they would just call the law firm and the fees would be waived.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Ya know, at some point they will reach the breaking point. People can only take so much before they snap. The 1789 French Revolution sort of started the same. Petty leeching was met by sporadic grumbling at first, and ignored precisely because it was rare and small potatoes. That only encourage the elites to gouge more and deeper.

    Because there is no competition to government, markets can't signal the growing discontent. If K-Mart were to behave similarly, like refusing to honor warranties or returns, the public reaction would be noted toot sweet, their competitors would launch ads touting their own solid reliability, and K-Mart would self-correct pretty quickly and still take a while to recover.

    Not so with government. They have no need to make it easy to complain, in fact the reverse. That just hides the complaints and makes the bureaucrats think it's an easy way to make a few bucks and fatten their pensions and their buddies' incomes. When the bottle finally comes uncorked, it takes them by surprise, they promise reforms and study committees ... and nothing happens.

    One of these days ,enough of this shit will happen at the same time and take the country by storm. There won't be a militia revolution. But it will make the 1994 mid-terms look like business as usual.

  • Longtobefree||

    Welcome to the revolution.
    Now you know why democrats are in such a tizzy to grab all the guns.

  • Malvolio||

    Do they have light-posts in Coachella? Clearly, some officials need to be strung up.

  • gah87||

    There's a fine for that.

  • Public Citizen||

    Miles and miles of easy to move sand surrounding this area.
    Less blatantly obvious than lightposts.
    When the worst of the bastiches start to disappear[a good start would be the senior partners of this extortion firm masquerading as a law practice] the remainder may clean up their act - for a little while - until the next reminder becomes necessary.

  • Johnniebgoode||

    California loves its taxes.

  • tommhan||

    Criminal behavior by your elected officials.

  • bailers77||

    Evil. There is no other word for it. Hopefully the feds open a civil rights case and ABA begins debarment proceedings against these "people".

  • baddabing||

    Let's assume that a city has the authority to delegate enforcement to a law firm. As an attorney, I'm at a loss to figure out by what authority a city can force a citizen to pay attorney's fees for the collection effort. Kinda like a murderer being sent a bill for $100,000 to pay for his attorney and another 100K to pay for the prosecution team after being sentenced to life for the crime. Question: do any cities send a bill for the time of their city attorney (a public employee) who does the same thing this private law firms is doing?

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    My best guess is that the cities don't use a city attorney because the cities themselves would bear the cost. This way allows the cities to pass the attorney fees on to the "violator". A better question may be why nobody has taken this to the State Bar, which is generally pretty aggressive when it comes to predatory attorney billing practices.

  • MamaLiberty||

    The root of all evil is the desire/compulsion to control the lives and property of others. Every other crime and evil proceeds from this base. Those who stand by and watch evil people damage and destroy their neighbors are accomplices in that evil.

  • Longtobefree||

    If I got one of these invoices in the mail, for services I did not contract for, at a rate that seems way out of line for even a lawyer, I would file a complaint with the USPS alleging mail fraud, and go for class action status with everyone else who got one.
    The ensuing discovery process could be fascinating.

  • croaker||

    This is why I think reverse decimation of lawyers is a good idea.

  • operagost||

    So much for the left wing being for the little guy. /s

  • Tionico||

    This WILL end up badly for these ambulance chasing attorneys.

    Code enforcement is not supposed t be a revenue stream. SOMEONE needs to hire an out of area attorney ahd raise some righteous cain with these thieves, AND the city dweebs who enable them. I'd have a good look at the city charter to see where this is enabled. Next election time, look out..... those presently in charge are likely to find themselves no longer pulling the strings.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Obviously, Indio and Coachella are trying to "elect a new people".
    The voters there need to remember this when it comes time to vote for local politicians.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Extortion is the only possible result of government licensing of any profession. Now, if you start with one as inherently parasitical as the lawyerly guild, what you end up with is an all-encompassing looter kleptocracy fissioned into two mutually-predatory factions.

  • Cloudbuster||

    If this were a Clinton Eastwood film, a Man With No Name would ride into town, kill Silver, Wright, everyone who works for them, and the mayor and city council to boot. And the audience would cheer and cheer....

  • hoptygopty||

    easy to violate the disarmed population

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