March 26, 2018

For almost two decades, IJ has led the fight to end policing for profit, the troubling trend in which law enforcement uses citizens as ATMs. A recent case fighting this injustice expands on our work to end civil forfeiture and government’s ability to pad its budgets using excessive fines and fees. In California’s Coachella Valley, a little-known for-profit policing tactic can turn minor infractions—like a $225 ticket for having chickens in a suburban backyard—into a nearly $6,000 bill from a private, for-profit law firm.

Welcome to the world of “prosecution fees,” where cities outsource their code enforcement to a private law firm. In California, the law firm’s business model is straightforward: Hire us to be your city’s prosecutor and we will bill property owners for every second spent prosecuting cases at private firm rates—sometimes costing thousands more than the original fine. This unconstitutional scheme has turned otherwise minor infractions into big business for both Indio, California, and the law firm, at the expense of homeowners’ due process rights.

Ramona Morales is a 79-year-old property owner who found herself inside the “prosecution fees” system.

Ramona is a housekeeper and retired Avon makeup saleswoman. Having learned about property investment from her housekeeping clients, Ramona saved for years to purchase multiple small properties. She refurbished many of those properties herself with the help of family and friends. And she eventually sold some properties to longtime tenants at discounted prices.

In 2015, Ramona received two warnings, a criminal citation, and even an arrest warrant, each saying that a tenant of hers was illegally keeping chickens. Overkill for a few chickens, but it appeared easy enough to resolve. Ramona made sure that the tenant complied by removing the chickens and then went to court to pay the citation. In court, she pleaded guilty and explained to the judge that the chickens had been removed. She paid the $225 in fines, fees and costs, believing the matter was over.

But nearly a year later, Ramona received a bill from Silver & Wright LLP, the law firm employed by Indio. The letter explained that the city was entitled to recoup all costs for the criminal prosecution and that those costs included the hourly rates billed by Silver & Wright. It requested that Ramona send a cashier’s check of over $3,000 made out to Silver & Wright.

None of this sounded right to Ramona. After all, she had already paid her fines. She decided to appeal the bill, but lost. Again, Ramona was billed nearly $3,000—this time for the supposed cost of preparing for the appeal.

She was able to get a cash loan from her son, a U.S. Marine, to pay the fees. Yet she was left bewildered. That is, until a local newspaper investigation revealed that Ramona was not alone. In November 2017, the Desert Sun reported that many others had been put through the same prosecution fees scheme by the cities of Indio and Coachella.

That is when IJ got involved. As part of IJ’s national campaign to fight for-profit policing, we teamed up with Ramona to file a class action lawsuit to shut down this unconstitutional prosecution fees system and return the money paid by Ramona and others in her situation. Both federal and California courts have already made it clear that it is illegal for prosecutors to have a direct financial interest in the cases they bring. That is why IJ will keep fighting until we end this type of policing for profit in California and elsewhere.

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