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California Property Owners Billed for Their Own Prosecution

by Christopher Zoukis

An investigation by the Desert Sun has uncovered an unusual phenomena in two California communities: The cities are taking property owners accused of public nuisance infractions to criminal court with the help of private prosecutors. The law firm providing those services is then billing the property owners thousands of dollars—for their own prosecution.

The cities, Indio and Coachella, have partnered with the law firm of Silver & Wright.

According to the Desert Sun, the firm is a state leader in “nuisance crime legal work.” This is a highly specialized area, as private property nuisances are generally pursued by city attorneys in civil court.

Silver & Wright’s method is different. In the case of Indio and Coachella, the firm contracts with the cities to handle the legal end of nuisance claims. When a nuisance is uncovered, the firm prosecutes the case in criminal court and then bills the defendant for its fees. The Desert Sun investigation determined that there is a “staggering” disparity between the fines paid by nuisance defendants and the fees charged by Silver & Wright.

Take the case of Cesar Garcia, for instance. Garcia was taken to criminal court by Silver & Wright for failure to obtain the proper permits before expanding his living room. He was charged with 29 misdemeanors, to which he pleaded guilty. He was fined $900 and brought his house up to code.

And then he got a $26,000 bill from Silver & Wright for fees related to his prosecution. When Garcia protested the bill, Silver & Wright upped the tab to $31,000 for fees related to his protest. “I thought it was a mistake,” Garcia told the Desert Sun. “But then they told me no. They said I had to pay.”

The firm also said if he did not pay, a lien would be recorded against his property, which the city could then foreclose.

Garcia’s case is not isolated. The Desert Sun investigation uncovered 18 cases in which the two cities have billed nuisance defendants over $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since the firm was hired. One Indio man was billed $3,200 in fees for selling parking on his land without a business license. A Coachella family with a broken garage door and trash-strewn yard was billed $18,500. And an Indio woman who decorated her street for Halloween was billed $2,700.

All three of these defendants appealed the fees. All three ended up owing Silver & Wright thousands more as a result.

Indio interim city manager Mark Scott defended the city’s practice. He told the Desert Sun that the thousands billed to the woman who decorated for Halloween was an outlier, but that the people who violate city ordinances should have to pay the full cost of the violation.

“I certainly don’t want to suggest that what this woman did is a $6,000 violation, because it isn’t,” Scott said. “It was the court costs that ran up the high bill. And the question is, why is there an obligation of everyone else in the city to pay these court costs when she knew from the beginning that she did the violations?”

The better question may be this: Why is a private law firm billing exorbitant fees to prosecute nuisance cases in criminal court when the cities could instead use the cheaper and easier civil court system?

Former Coachella city attorney Steve Quintanilla told the Desert Sun that he encouraged the civil method because it is better for everyone, including the property owners, who are often already poor.

“The object of every nuisance case should be cleaning up the property, not punishing the property owner monetarily,” said Quintanilla, who is now the city attorney for Rancho Mirage. “We don’t pursue these cases in criminal court because not only does it cost more money for the city, it costs more for other taxpayers, too, because in a lot of cases the property owners have to be provided with a public defender.”

Silver & Wright doesn’t appear to see things the same way. The firm boasts on its website that it specializes in “cost recovery” for city code enforcement and nuisance issues. According to Reason magazine’s blog, the site also proclaims that the firm’s 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.”

To attorney Shaun Sullivan, who represented Cesar Garcia in a lawsuit over his $31,000 bill from Silver & Wright, revenue production is what is really behind the firm’s efforts.

“Fixing his house was just a side effect. Collecting this money was always their goal,” Sullivan told the Desert Sun.

“They saw a potential payday and jumped at it,” he added. “When it’s this easy, and this lucrative, they are going to look for ways and opportunities to do this as often as possible.”

In fact, according to the newspaper’s investigation, within one year of contracting with Silver & Wright, city councils in both Indio and Coachella created new nuisance ordinances, which allowed the collection of prosecution fees without a judicial order.

Leonard Cravens, the Indio attorney who represented Garcia in his building permit prosecution, said his client was not told of the fees when he signed his $900 plea deal. And when the bill showed up, it was for more than six times what Cravens—Garcia’s actual lawyer—charged.

“It’s absolutely a scam—you can quote me on that,” Cravens told the Desert Sun. “They pick the most expensive way to get the job done, in criminal court, because it’s all about the money.” 

Sources: reason.com, desertsun.com

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