Ramona Morales, 79, filed a class-action lawsuit attacking privatized prosecutions in the eastern Coachella Valley.
Ramona Morales, 79, had no idea a few chickens could be so expensive. She also didn’t know that prosecutions could be so profitable.
Three years ago, on a neighborhood street in central Indio, a city code enforcement officer spotted a few clucking birds inside a coop in the backyard of a small house. The chickens were a violation of a city ordinance, so the officer sent a written warning to Morales, who owned the house and rented it out.
“She didn’t know this little dispute about a couple of chickens would turn into nearly a $6,000 bill,” said Jeffrey Redfern, Morales attorney. “But it’s because these guys are making money off of her and everybody else.”
On Tuesday, Morales filed a class-action lawsuit against Indio and Coachella, two cities that have made a practice of taking residents to criminal court for exceptionally minor crimes, then charging them thousands to pay for the cost of their own prosecution. The lawsuit is a direct response to a Desert Sun investigation, published in November, which revealed that the cities had billed residents like Morales more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” and threatened to take their homes if they didn’t pay.
If successful, the class-action lawsuit will reverse convictions of anyone who was prosecuted by Indio and Coachella’s privatized prosecutors, the law firm Silver & Wright, and lead to the return of prosecution fees paid by those residents. The suit also might affect other Riverside County cities that also have hired Silver & Wright.
Morales is represented by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, libertarian public interest law firm that combats government overreach, particularly what the firm calls “policing for profit.” The law firm is similar to the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU.
Redfern, an Institute attorney, said the Morales lawsuit argues that Silver & Wright had a “personal, financial stake” in every prosecution; if they got a conviction, they got paid. This profitability colored every case filed by Silver & Wright, Redfern said, making prosecutions less about fixing problem properties and more about cashing in on convictions.
“There are enough laws on the books that you can prosecute basically anyone you want to if you are motivated enough, and the housing code is really ripe for abuse,” Redfern said. “But, if you combine capacious and vague code, where almost anything can be a violation, and you let the person who is going to enforce the code make money off of it, then the potential for abuse is just tremendous.”
The following video was produced by The Institute For Justice to explain the class action lawsuit filed against Indio and Coachella.
Coachella City Hall declined to comment, saying it does not discuss litigation. An Indio official said city staff were unprepared to comment because they had not yet reviewed the lawsuit, which was filed shortly before courts closed on Tuesday. Curtis Wright, one of the partners at Silver & Wright, also said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because he hadn’t read it yet.
Silver & Wright refused to comment for the initial Desert Sun investigation, but later released a statement insisting that all of their prosecutions were “meritorious” and that all the fees charged by the firm – including prosecution fees – reimbursed the taxpayers of Indio and Coachella.
“We go out of our way to be as fair as possible in the criminal process,” Silver & Wright said in its statement, adding later “The intent is not to convict, but to achieve code compliance.”
Indio officials have publicly stood by the Silver & Wright strategy, saying it had been effective at erasing blight where other tactics had failed. Coachella officials said in November that they would rethink the practice of filing criminal charges against nuisance property owners, but the Institute for Justice characterized this response as too little too late.
“It’s good news obviously,” Redfern said, “but that doesn’t help the people who’ve already been prosecuted.”
Prosecution fees began in both cities about two or three years ago, after the city councils hired Silver & Wright, which sells itself as an expert on code enforcement and cost recovery. The firm then helped both cities create new ordinances that would allow them to send a bill to anyone who is convicted of a nuisance property crime, then began taking property owners to criminal court.
Although The Desert Sun investigation identified 18 cases in which residents or business were charged prosecution fees, Morales is currently the only plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit. Her attorneys said they are likely to add others in the near future.
Morales, who has lived and worked in the Coachella Valley for decades, owns six small Indio rental properties that she bought with savings from a long career of cleaning houses and selling Avon makeup, according to the lawsuit. The properties were in dilapidated conditions when Morales bought them, Redfern said, then Morales and her family members renovated the homes “largely with their own hands,” creating an investment that she could leave to her children and grandchildren.
Trouble with one of the properties began in 2015 when an Indio code enforcement officers spotted the chicken in the backyard. Morales says she told her tenant to get rid of the chickens, but when the chickens weren’t removed, Indio forwarded the case to Silver & Wright, who filed criminal charges against Morales and sought a warrant for her arrest.
Morales then went to court and pleaded guilty to two infractions – one for the chickens and one for renting properties without a business license, which she did not know was required. An infraction is a violation of law no more serious than a speeding ticket. Morales was fined $75 for each infraction by the court and the criminal case was closed.
Nearly a year later, Indio City Hall sent Morales a bill saying she now owed the city $3,000 – including $2,400 in “prosecution fees” – which must be paid to Silver & Wright in 45 days. Morales appealed the debt to an administrative hearing officer (contracted by the city) who upheld the bill. Silver & Wright then added another $2,600 for the cost of defending the appeal, bringing Morales total bill to $5,659.
If Morales did not pay, the law firm would put a lien on her property, which meant her land could be seized to pay off the debt. Morales paid because she was afraid of losing her investment, but she said she was still utterly confused as to why she owed anything.
About a year after that, the Desert Sun investigation into prosecution fees was published.
That day, according to her lawsuit, was when it finally made sense.
“After reading the story, Mrs. Morales finally understood the reason she had been subjected to criminal prosecution and billed almost $6,000 was that the city prosecutor – Silver & Wright – was trying to make money off of her,” the lawsuit states.
Similar sentiments have come from other property owners who are not plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit but would still benefit if the suit erases their convictions. In some of those cases, the disparity between the severity of the crime and the cost of the bill is even more staggering than what happened to Morales.
For example, one Coachella resident with a busted garage door and an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $25,200. And an Indio businessman, Joseph Ramani, was billed $25,000 because a shopping center he owned had overgrown weeds, unsecured dumpsters, two broken windows and a “sun-damaged address number.”
“It’s absolutely a scam – you can quote me on that,” said Ramani’s attorney, Leonard Cravens, in a prior interview. “They pick the most expensive way to get the job done, in criminal court, because it’s all about the money.”
One other Coachella resident, Cesar Garcia, has also challenged prosecution fees in county court, although his lawsuit is separate from the class-action lawsuit announced Tuesday.
Garcia was prosecuted by Silver & Wright for expanding his house to make room for a small daycare business without the proper building permit from City Hall. After he pleaded guilty, Silver & Wright sent him a bill for $26,000 – including $21,000 in prosecution fees. After he appealed, the bill rose to $31,000.
“Fixing his house was just a side effect. Collecting this money was always their goal,” said Shaun Sullivan, Garcia’s attorney, in a prior interview. “When it’s this easy, and this lucrative, they are going to look for ways and opportunities to do this as often as possible.”
Reporter Brett Kelman can be reached by phone at (760) 778-4642, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @TDSbrettkelman
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You might also be interested in the supplement to this Handbook: Planned Grazing: A Study Guide and Reference Manual.