RIVERSIDE - An Indio property owner has filed a civil rights class action seeking to vindicate the rights of people who have been criminally prosecuted for municipal ordinance violations and then charged thousands of dollars to cover the alleged cost of their own prosecution.
Attorneys for the Institute for Justice (IJ) represent the proposed class that include Ramona Morales, who in 2015 agreed to pay a $225 fine for failing to force her tenants to remove a few backyard chickens, but had no way of knowing that what started out as a misunderstanding would ultimately cost her nearly $6,000.
Filed Feb. 13 in Superior Court of Riverside County, the suit names the cities of Indio and Coachella as defendants, as well as private law firm Silver & Wright of Indio which acts as deputy city prosecutor for code enforcement cases.
The IJ is a national, public interest law firm that is partnering with O’Melveny & Myers of Los Angeles to pursue the litigation.
According to the suit, Silver & Wright is funded by fees that it collects from the people it prosecutes, none of whom have any idea when they plead guilty to minor infractions and misdemeanors that their prosecutor has a personal, financial stake in their case and will later try to collect thousands of dollars in fees.
The alleged scheme plays out after a property owner agrees to plead guilty and pay a fine, rather than fight in court. The law firm then bills the owner "for every second spent prosecuting the case at private firm rates, even if that costs ten or a hundred times more than the original fine," the IJ says.
It also says that Morales was one of an "untold number" of property owners caught up in the "unconstitutional scheme" by Silver & Wright to turn the cities' property maintenance codes into big business.
“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,” said Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney at IJ. “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 proposed class action seeks to vacate all criminal convictions obtained by Silver & Wright in Riverside County, obtain the return of all fines and fees paid in connection with prosecutions by the firm in Riverside County, and enjoin the firm from further unconstitutional prosecutions in cases in which the firm has a financial interest.
According to a press release from the IJ, Morales has worked for most of her life cleaning houses and selling Avon makeup in the Coachella Valley. In 2015, after receiving a pair of "confusing" warnings, Ramona received a $75 citation in the mail from the city of Indio. It said that a city inspector noticed a chicken in the backyard of a home she rents out. Rather than resolving the matter administratively the city and Silver & Wright went directly to criminal court, which meant that Indio police also issued a warrant for Ramona’s arrest.
Morales went to court to explain that her tenants were confused about the legality of raising chickens in Indio, and she ultimately agreed to pay the nominal fine, the release states. She thought the ordeal was over, but nearly a year later, Morales then received a bill in the mail from Silver & Wright, demanding $3,030 in attorney’s fees. It allegedly threatened to sell her property, if she refused to pay. She appealed the fees, lost, and was billed an additional $2,628 for the cost of the appeal. In the end, she paid nearly $6,000 in attorneys fees for a minor infraction of the city code.
The IJ states that dozens of California cities started to hire the firm in 2013 to, among other things, serve as official city prosecutor for code enforcement cases.
"The firm’s pitch was appealing," the release states. "It offered 'cost neutral or even revenue producing' prosecution services, so long as the city changed its ordinances to allow the firm to directly bill property owners for its full attorneys fees, which range from $159 to $175 per hour. As a result, homeowners agreeing to pay small fines for minor code infractions were later billed thousands of dollars under the guise of 'cost recovery' by a law firm acting in an official capacity.
"Once cities amended their codes to allow Silver & Wright to bill their time, the firm got to work prosecuting a large number of cases."
Most of the prosecutions were for fairly minor violations, such as long grass, broken garage door, construction without requisite permits, sun damaged address numbers, decorations hanging in public places, broken windows, and keeping chickens.
Another attorney for IJ, Josh House, said that financial incentives have no place in the justice system.
“Government prosecutors have a duty to seek justice, not maximize earnings or generate revenue for a city," he said. "In Indio, and across California, Silver & Wright is treating homeowners like ATMs. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that prosecutors cannot have a personal financial stake in the cases they bring. We’re confident the California courts will see this for what it is: an illegal attempt to turn a profit off of the criminal justice system.”