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Policing for Profit? California Towns Bill Residents Thousands for Nuisance Violations


Cesar Garcia and his wife Claudia have lived in their home in the desert town of Coachella, California, for more than 13 years. They've raised three kids there, and Claudia runs an at-home daycare out of the house.

But three years ago, they made a mistake that could cost them their home and livelihood. When converting their back porch into a TV room, they neglected to get a permit from the city.

Garcia ignored early warnings from Coachella's buildings department. Then a team of inspectors showed up unannounced. He entered a guilty plea in court, paid a $900 fine, and demolished the structure as ordered by the judge. Next, he got the proper permit before rebuilding and upgrading the porch into a room for the daycare.

He thought the issue was resolved. But six months later a bill arrived for $26,000.

As the local newspaper the Desert Sun first reported, the city of Coachella is holding Garcia responsible for paying the cost of his own prosection.

To prosecute Garcia, the city hired the private law firm Silver & Wright, which promised that its work would be "cost neutral or even revenue-producing."

Garcia, who works as a grocery store manager about an hour and a half from his home, isn't the only code violator to receive an unexpected bill.

Six months after Ramona Morales paid a $250 fine because one of her tenants was illegally housing chickens, Silver & Wright invoiced her for $5,600.

A woman in the neighboring town of Indio who was cited for putting up illegal Halloween decorations was charged $2,600.

And another family received a bill for $18,500 after pleading guilty to having a broken garage door and overgrown lawn.

As of November 2017, Silver & Wright had collected more than $122,000 in code enforcement fees from dozens of residents in an area in which the median annual household income is about $36,000.

After Garcia received his bill, he appealed. That drove his bill up another $5,000. Since Garcia couldn't afford to pay $21,000 in prosecutor's fees within a month, the city put a lein on his house.

"It's like, 'You're going to lose your house because you're not paying $21,000,'" says Garcia. "This is my house. This is where we live. We feel safety here."

Jeffrey Redfern is an attorney with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Garcia and others charged with the costs of their own prosecutions. He describes the arrangement between Silver & Wright and the cities of Coachella and Indio as "policing for profit."

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