By Jeffrey Redfern
Residents of Indio, California, are finally free from the city’s tyrannical “for-profit prosecution” scheme thanks to IJ’s recent victory on behalf of individuals like our client Ramona Morales. Ramona is a landlord and retired housekeeper who was criminally prosecuted by Indio because one of her tenants was keeping chickens illegally. Ramona pleaded guilty and paid a small fine but was later shocked to receive a bill for nearly $6,000—the alleged cost of hiring a private law firm to prosecute her.
The firm, Silver & Wright, has dozens of California cities as clients. Its marketing pitch—“cost-neutral code enforcement”—is driven by the same kind of abusive tactics that the firm employed with Ramona: criminally charging people for minor infractions, extracting guilty pleas, and then surprising victims with massive bills for attorney’s fees. IJ’s research revealed dozens of property owners who had similar stories in the cities of Indio and nearby Coachella.
In February 2018, IJ filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Ramona and other property owners who had lost thousands of dollars to this new incarnation of policing for profit. This scheme violates both the California and federal Constitutions, which prohibit criminal prosecutors from having a financial stake in the cases they bring. By outsourcing code enforcement to a private law firm with an incentive to make money off the cases, cities around California have abandoned their responsibility to ensure that criminal prosecutions promote justice, not the bottom line.
This past December, Ramona got some good news: Indio agreed to refund every penny collected from her and others who had been prosecuted. Additionally, the city promised to put a stop to its for-profit prosecution practice and cooperate with IJ’s efforts to get class members’ criminal records expunged. We expect that the court will soon give final approval to the settlement, which ensures the city can be held accountable for years to come.
But the fight isn’t over. The city of Coachella and its private prosecutors are continuing to fight to get IJ’s case dismissed and deny justice to Coachella residents. To date, however, IJ has won every encounter. And along the way, we’ve obtained useful rulings about the importance of prosecutorial neutrality and about individuals’ rights to challenge criminal convictions when they later learn that their convictions were unconstitutional.
What’s more, IJ’s efforts helped pass vital state legislative reform. When California lawmakers learned what had been happening in Indio, Coachella, and other cities, they overwhelmingly passed a bill outlawing these schemes, which then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law.
This is great progress, and IJ will keep fighting—and winning—until the citizens of Coachella receive the same justice as the citizens of Indio and we secure yet another victory in our nationwide battle against policing for profit.
Jeffrey Redfern is an IJ attorney.