MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

City Demands $6,000 from Woman over Illegal Chickens

A municipal scheme with a private prosecution firm leads to outrageous fines in the California desert.

Ramona MoralesRomany Morales, courtesy of Institute for JusticeRamona Morales, a landlord in Indio, California, was cited $225 because one of her tenants was raising chickens in the backyard of a home, in violation of city ordinance.

Such citations are not terribly unusual. The surprise came later. A private firm the city had hired to handle code enforcement violations billed her for thousands of dollars for the cost of her own prosecution. She ended up paying nearly $6,000.

This scheme to cash in on relatively minor code enforcement issues was investigated and exposed by Desert Sun reporter Brett Kelman last November. This week the property-rights-protecting lawyers of the Institute for Justice waded into the fight. On Tuesday they filed a class action suit against Indio, the nearby city of Coachella, and the law firm Silver & Wright. Their aim: to stop this oppressively expensive code enforcement racket.

Here's how this scheme works. In these towns, when code enforcement officers track down issues like broken windows or unpermitted construction, they don't simply cite the offenders and demand they fix it. They turn the cases over to Silver & Wright for criminal prosecution.

Typically the property owners plead guilty and are ordered to pay small fines, as happened with Morales. Then, months later, they get a bill for thousands from Silver & Wright demanding that they pay the law firm's fees for the costs of being prosecuted. They can appeal, but that brings another kick in the gut: a second bill charging them even more money for the legal costs of fighting the appeal. One Coachella man was charged tens of thousands of dollars in prosecution fees over an unpermitted expansion of his living room. Another family has been billed nearly $40,000 over code violations that were mailed to a woman who had died at a property that was sitting vacant.

When I first blogged about this nasty business, I noted that Silver & Wright's website bragged that the firm could find ways to "make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral or even revenue producing." (Interesting note: I can no longer find this quote on the site.)

The Institute for Justice also took note of the firm's promise that cities could make money off code enforcement. In its announcement of the suit, which is being pursued with the help of the lawyers of O'Melveny & Myers, the institute notes that California courts have ruled that it's illegal for prosecutors to have a direct financial stake in the cases they pursue.

Institute for Justice attorney Jeffrey Redfern breaks down the consequences:

No one should have a warrant out for their arrest and be forced to pay $6,000 to resolve a simple dispute about a few backyard chickens. This could have been resolved with a simple phone call, but it wasn't, in part, because Silver & Wright's business model creates a perverse financial incentive to prosecute cases like Ramona's in criminal court, rather than treat homeowners with goodwill.

The institute is trying to get the courts to shut this whole system of enforcement down and to return the money paid by Morales and others who have been fleeced by the firm.

Below, watch a video from the Institute for Justice explaining how this racket works:

Photo Credit: Institute of Justice

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • sarcasmic||

    Heard about this on NPR of all places while I was driving the other day. Even avowed leftists are up in arms about this one. Something might actually happen.

  • Eric L||

    Yes, this should be THE issue at the next city elections.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    There is a movement afoot to fight these ordinances, as suburbunites are starting to get back to the earth and try to raise their own food. Guess what the origin of these ordinances is? It is not because roosters are loud, as someone points out below. Hens are pretty quiet. No, it is because chickens are associated with poor people and middle class people do not want to be associated with the poor. It is the same reason it is hard to find a development without an HOA. It is the tyranny of the neighbor who thinks he should have a say about how other people use their property.

  • Brandybuck||

    Only because Indio is not known as a progressive town. It's a Safe D location, but for California is still a somewhat reddish spot on the political map. Same thing in say, Malibu, would have gone unreported.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Cutting down on the run-of-the-mill government waste?

  • jdgalt1||

    At least a law against keeping chickens in a populated area is legitimate, since they wake the neighbors at night.

  • Eric L||

    Hens are not noisy at night. At dusk, mine go to their coop and sleep.
    Most cities that allow for chickens limit the number and do not allow roosters.

  • Eric L||

    Hens are not noisy at night. At dusk, mine go to their coop and sleep.
    Most cities that allow for chickens limit the number and do not allow roosters.

  • Agammamon||

    Since when?

    There might be a case for smell or disease - noise? Not at all. Even roosters aren't that loud. If you're going to ban a bird for noise pollution, its goddamned *parrots* that need to go.

  • Agammamon||

    Update - I am looking for a house right now and one of the ones that I might buy has a neighbor how raises chickens and apparently has *several* roosters.

    They might be quiet at night but they sure as fuck won't shut up during the day so I'm going to have to carefully consider whether or not to buy this house that otherwise meets, like, 95% of my criteria.

  • sarcasmic||

    My neighbors across the street have chickens, and a rooster. I've never heard the rooster at night. I do occasionally hear a shotgun at night when they blast the raccoons that try to get into the coop, but never a rooster.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Hens only make noise when they are being abused, which is why SIV's town passed an ordinance banning chickens.

  • silver.||

    Had a hen show up in my backyard a few years ago. My county didn't allow chickens then, but it wasn't an issue. It hung around for a few months then got eaten or left. Barely made noise; the first time I heard it I thought I was still half-asleep. Mostly clucked when my dog antagonized it.

    They learned to peacefully coexist, and my dog liked hunting down the eggs and eating them. Gave her a lot of energy.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    Chickens are quiet. Guineas are loud.

  • Agammamon||

    I don't think these people understand quite how this is supposed to work - you want to lock someone up, *you* bear the burden of financing the whole thing.

  • albo||

    Vote out these idiotic politicians, people.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    There's no such thing as illegal chickens, there's only chickens doing the jobs that native chickens won't.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    They clucked our jobz.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    They took oor joobs....tookoordoobs, coookoodoobs, cockadoodledoobs!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Cuck

    a

    doodle

    do

  • Brandybuck||

    ""They turn the cases over to Silver & Wright for criminal prosecution.""

    Is that even legal? Private attorneys can prosecute crimes? Since when?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Some jurisdictions bring in private attorneys as "solicitors" as like part-time district attorneys.

    It saves jurisdictions money but tends to have a conflict of interest.

  • My Dog Bites Better Than Yours||

    I was wondering how the hell a code violation becomes a criminal case. The worst it can get is the county corrects the defect for you and adds the cost to the tax bill. I suppose they can force a sale if you absolutely refuse to pay your taxes.

    Then again, this is California. I've been living here four years and still get it confused with the real world.

  • Brandybuck||

    It's an infraction. Less severe than a misdemeanor, but still technically crime.

    Then again, people go apeshit over illegal immigration, and that's an infraction too. Criminals be criminals.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Actually illegal immigration has a range of federal civil violations, misdemeanors, and/or felonies.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It would appear they forgot to scrub their Facebook page.

    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.
  • silver.||

    Nice find, FoE.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Drudge is on this story now.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online