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Policing for Profit? California Towns Bill Residents Thousands for Nuisance Violations

Citizens of Coachella and Indio are fighting back against the private law firm that charged them for their own prosecutions.

Cesar Garcia and his wife Claudia have lived in their home in the desert town of Coachella, California, for more than 13 years. They've raised three kids there, and Claudia runs an at-home daycare out of the house.

But three years ago, they made a mistake that could cost them their home and livelihood. When converting their back porch into a TV room, they neglected to get a permit from the city.

Garcia ignored early warnings from Coachella's buildings department. Then a team of inspectors showed up unannounced. He entered a guilty plea in court, paid a $900 fine, and demolished the structure as ordered by the judge. Next, he got the proper permit before rebuilding and upgrading the porch into a room for the daycare.

He thought the issue was resolved. But six months later a bill arrived for $26,000.

As the local newspaper the Desert Sun first reported, the city of Coachella is holding Garcia responsible for paying the cost of his own prosection.

To prosecute Garcia, the city hired the private law firm Silver & Wright, which promised that its work would be "cost neutral or even revenue-producing."

Garcia, who works as a grocery store manager about an hour and a half from his home, isn't the only code violator to receive an unexpected bill.

Six months after Ramona Morales paid a $250 fine because one of her tenants was illegally housing chickens, Silver & Wright invoiced her for $5,600.

A woman in the neighboring town of Indio who was cited for putting up illegal Halloween decorations was charged $2,600.

And another family received a bill for $18,500 after pleading guilty to having a broken garage door and overgrown lawn.

As of November 2017, Silver & Wright had collected more than $122,000 in code enforcement fees from dozens of residents in an area in which the median annual household income is about $36,000.

After Garcia received his bill, he appealed. That drove his bill up another $5,000. Since Garcia couldn't afford to pay $21,000 in prosecutor's fees within a month, the city put a lein on his house.

"It's like, 'You're going to lose your house because you're not paying $21,000,'" says Garcia. "This is my house. This is where we live. We feel safety here."

Jeffrey Redfern is an attorney with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Garcia and others charged with the costs of their own prosecutions. He describes the arrangement between Silver & Wright and the cities of Coachella and Indio as "policing for profit."

Silver & Wright "goes around to these cities and says, 'Hey, we can get you 90 percent of your fees or 100 percent of your fees back,'" says Redfern. It "had an incentive to prosecute cases in a complicated and expensive manner, so as to drive up the fees [and] collect from the defendants."

Attorney Edward Sousalik is representing Silver & Wright in the lawsuit. He says Redfern's characterization of his clients is "naive and false."

"When situations like this arise, it's the taxpayers of the city who have to pay for this," says Sousalik. "It's absolutely a fair outcome, because otherwise, who pays that $26,000? It's the good citizens of the city."

The lawsuit claims that the financial arrangement violates the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the California constitution, which guarantees the right to a neutral prosecutor without financial or personal stake in the case.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Outrage over Garcia's story led to the passage of a new law in California prohibiting cities from charging defendants for their own criminal prosecution. But it doesn't retroactively absolve Garcia of his debt.

    I don't see this case going the city's way.

  • JWatts||

    Did they stop charging the family for the bullet used to shoot the kulaks, too? Damn, the Lefties are going soft.

  • Ben of Houston||

    I don't see how they thought this was acceptable in the first place. Quite frankly, the attorneys and the city should be brought up on corruption and racketeering charges.

  • Bronze Khopesh||

    And a gallows.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Chipper

  • Bronze Khopesh||

    Attorney Edward Sousalik is representing Silver & Wright in the lawsuit. He says Redfern's characterization of his clients is "naive and false."



    "When situations like this arise, it's the taxpayers of the city who have to pay for this," says Sousalik. "It's absolutely a fair outcome, because otherwise, who pays that $26,000? It's the good citizens of the city."

    What $26,000 you mendacious piece of garbage? There is no way that is not a made up number. Because there is no way that it cost anywhere near that amount for the city to issue that citation and then run it through the system. I would guess that the fine itself covered the entire cost and then some.

    This is the type of things that libertarians need to really focus on. These tiny tyrannies. (Huge for the victims of them but relatively small in terms of the rest of what's going on in society.) All politics is local, after all.

  • Juice||

    We need more Free State Project style activism, but that takes so much time and effort, and people.

  • marshaul||

    Sorry, but any of the Indisputably Libertarian™ commenters who have (strangely, only recently) infested the forum could tell you that the ACLU is undeniably carrying out a Communist Plot. What you might not know is that the ACLU has been working with IJ on this issue. Now that I've informed you, I'm sure you'll agree that opposing assert forfeiture is actually Communist™, that police are totally heroic in every way under all circumstances, and that Real Libertarians™ now support asset forfeiture.

  • marshaul||

    Assert forfeiture is pretty great, too.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    Just who do you believe is your intended audience?

  • Trollificus||

    Soooo...what you're saying is "I saw a white cat. Therefore all cats are white".

  • Ricardo Vacilon||

    The idea that wrongdoers should pay for costs of justice doesn't seem wrong to me. The problem in this case is that the Garcias didn't do anything wrong: they are the ones whose legal fees should be reimbursed.

  • steve sturm||

    As I think it's consistent with a 'loser pays' approach, I like the idea of holding those who break the law responsible for the costs incurred in prosecuting the crime*. Why should the rest of society have to pay the cost? It should be pretty straightforward: you do something wrong, you pay the costs. You sue someone and fail to prove you're right, you pay their costs (including damage to their reputation).

    * offering the usual caveats that I don't think $26,000 is reasonable in this case, I really don't like the idea of farming out prosecution to the private sector, I don't think somebody should need a permit to make non-structural improvements to their property, and there are too many petty ordinances on the books.

  • Agammamon||

    The only reason that this is a crime is because someone said it would be. There's no victim here. Just someone who demanded a say in how you use your property.

    If you demand that say, then you pay for that say.

    Its very different than expecting an armed robber or thiefwho gets convicted to bear the burden of their prosecution.

    OTOH, consider this - if convicted criminals bear the burden of their prosecutions;

    a) What about those whose convictions are overturned?

    b) How do you squeeze blood from a turnip

    c) What possible limits would there be for prosecutors to claim expenses? Keep in mind that prosecution costs would need to include police work, lab work, in addition to what the prosecutor's office and the court itself cost. A petty theft would end up destroying your life.

  • Chute_Me||

    Well, there is one victim: Garcia.

    According to the lawyer in the video, Garcia is a "criminal" because he watches TV. Others are deemed "criminals" because they hung sheets that look like ghosts. The list goes on and on from there: hairdressers, interior designers, river guides (that's one of my personal favorites, from "North Woods Law"), people who don't mow, and basically everybody else. Nuisance ordinances are designed for but one purpose: to steal our money.

  • steve sturm||

    I also believe that the state ought to reimburse those who are charged but not convicted. Someone (state, individual) levies a charge against you they can't/don't prove, you're entitled to damages. I think there's way too much ability to screw with someone without having to suffer the consequences and I'd like to see those on the receiving end get some form of compensation.

    I'd build a financial penalty into the consequences of committing a crime, including petty theft. XX number of days in jail, XX dollars to reimburse the state. It's hokey, but if you can't do the time or pay the fine, don't do the crime.

  • marshaul||

    Good policy is about incentives, not about what you like the thought of. This policy Creates extremely perverse incentives. Therefore, your thoughts are wrong, and I suggest you reevaluate them.

  • Ben of Houston||

    If the costs were up front in the settlement and the costs were reasonable, that would be one thing. However, there are two problems

    1: This was not disclosed in the settlement, but a surprise that is sprung afterwards. Therefore, people do not fight cases that are marginal, thinking they can get off easy.
    2: The penalties are two orders of magnitude larger than the price they pay for the ticket. In the headline case, it's a rip-off. Even at fairly standard lawyer rates of $300 per hour, how could they account for 86 billable hours on a simple permitting case?

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    I keep trying to read that as sarcasm but the second paragraph says you are serious. The flaws are too numerous to even start addressing.

  • JoeJoetheIdiotCircusBoy||

    ^ This. Perhaps Steve just hasn't thought this completely through?

  • steve sturm||

    Just claiming there are flaws doesn't make it flawed. Actual arguments, please?

  • antiestablismentarianism||

    The problem with the loser pays mentality is twofold: One, plea deals, which are already a problem in our society, will become much more common meaning more innocent people will accept them to lower the costs of their prosecution. Two, part of the job of the justice system is to promote rehabilitation and to prevent recidivism. Prisoners coming out of jail and prison already have an extremely difficult time getting jobs, housing, and support to live law abiding lives. With a loser pays mentality, they now have massive amounts of debt and poor credit too. This is counterproductive and will likely cause more recidivism because it leaves no room for hope for the formerly convicted.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Let this be a lesson to communist anarchist infiltrators presuming to speak for the Libertarian Party. We have to work within the Constitution (even while advocating repeal of some Force Amendments) in order to garner enough spoiler votes to repeal bad laws through legal jiu-jitsu. This is a sterling example of the correct answer Ayn Rand's to challenge to communist anarchist infiltrators: "Remember that forcible restraint of men is the only service a government has to offer. Ask yourself what competition in forcible restraint would have to mean?" Somebody give Zach a raise, dammit!

  • Bill Poser||

    I hope that their friends will raise friends to cover this if the law suit does not succeed.

  • Bill Poser||

    That should be "raise funds".

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    I thought gofundme was all about making new friends through funds.

  • IceTrey||

    If it was previously costing the city $26,000 for every $900 violation why would they have ever issued any? The city would have gone broke.

  • Agammamon||

    . . . because otherwise, who pays that $26,000? It's the good citizens of the city."

    Uhm, the *good* citizens of the city are the ones who demanded the privilege of having a say in what other property owners do with their property. Now, I'm not saying that's wrong (or right) - but if you demand that say, you bear the burden of that cost.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    How many more years (and billable hours by the lawyers on both sides) will this insanity continue?

  • Alan@.4||

    One might say Only In California, but that might be incorrect, as this type of scam might be perpetrated elsewhere too. Being a renter, I have avoided such problems, though I might have been visited by others, who knows.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    That'll show those Mexican police mordita types who's number 1. MAGA!

  • Jerryskids||

    I just don't understand why you would agree to fight a lawyer in court and give up the homefield advantage. For a lot less than 26k I'd think you could find a couple of guys named Tiny to argue your case on a neutral field like the alley out back of the courthouse.

  • Longtobefree||

    What do you call 500 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?

    A good start.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    I wonder if Jeffrey Redburn would pay to have the woodchipper cleaned after its just usage on his behalf. The good citizens shouldn't have to.

  • Duelles||

    Sousalik is an asshole lawyer, subhuman. The good citizens through their town government incurred the $26,000 legal bil which is BS anyway.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    ""When situations like this arise, it's the taxpayers of the city who have to pay for this," says Sousalik. "It's absolutely a fair outcome, because otherwise, who pays that $26,000? It's the good citizens of the city.""

    That's not a bug, you insolent toad, that's a feature. IF (and that's a big IF) it costs the City $26,000 to fine somebody for doing something as innocuous as enclosing a porch on their house, then the size of the bill is supposed to make the City officials say to themselves "Gee, this is kinda hard to justify on a cost/benefit basis. Maybe I should find something useful to do instead."

    Now why do I think that in Edward Sousalik's high school year book he was voted "Most likely to be a degenerate slime ball"?

  • Steve-O||

    Exactly this. The good citizens should have to consider whether these shysters are overbilling (hint: they are).

  • Jerry B.||

    And IJ gets another donation from me.

  • CGN||

    Let's "Kill all the lawyers" as Shakespeare wrote. The government is PLAINLY engaging in illegal and immoral actions, hoping, as the lying cheating, scumbag politicians (sorry for being redundant) they are to get away with it and some money. Another great reason to stay away from California.

  • jerryg1018||

    The legal business is in a downward trend, lawyers are looking for new business models. The legal patent and copyright trolls have run up against a stone wall and are looking for new sources of revenue.

  • Harvey Mosley||

    We appear to have a shortage of dead politicians and bureaucrats. This is just one obvious result of that.

  • EWM||

    If you're paying a property tax, you don't own the property. It's the year 2018. Everybody should know this.

  • My Dog Bites Better Than Yours||

    Hold it! In what sane world is a code violation a criminal offense?

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