Here’s something to be thankful for: be thankful you don’t live in Indio or Coachella California, where unscrupulous city governments and an enterprising law form conspire to fleece their citizens. It works like this:
Step One: Indio and Coachella hire a private law firm, Silver & Wright, to prosecute citizens in criminal court for minor property violations of city ordinances. These result in small fines for infractions like not mowing the yard or selling lemonade without a business license.
Step Two: The citizens go to court, plead guilty, and pay the fines,
Step Three: They get a bill in the mail for a huge fee from the law firm that the city hired to prosecuted them. This fee is for the cost of the prosecution. Thus a fine for a couple of hundred dollars explodes into a legal bill of four or five figures.
Step Four: If the citizen objects, the law firm raises the fee demand.
Step Five: If the citizens can’t pay, the law firm threatens to take their homes.
The law firm that runs this brilliant operation is Silver & Wright, and it has been going on for years. The Desert Sun, in an investigative journalism effort, revealed this unholy alliance of municipality and law firm, and now, with public scrutiny, it just might be on its last legs. Thankfully.
The 18 cases examined by The Desert Sun come under the heading of nuisance property abatement, violations of law that are too inconsequential to involve the county’s real prosecutors, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. Thus Silver & Wright steps in. Contract prosecutions are a profit center for the firm, which explains on its website that it specializes in code enforcement and “cost recovery,” boasting
“Our attorneys have developed unique and cutting edge practices to achieve success for our clients and make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral or even revenue producing.”
Indio contracted with Silver & Wright in 2014, and Coachella followed in 2015. Within a year of hiring the firm, both city councils created new nuisance property ordinances empowering the cities to seek prosecution fees without getting approval from a judge. Then Silver & Wright started taking east valley property owners to criminal court.
In most of the cases the newspaper examined, the disparity between the crime and the costs to the “criminals” was unconscionable. Defendants who faced no jail time and were fined only a few hundred dollars ended up paying five or ten times that much to private prosecutors who attended a couple of court hearings. A Coachella family with an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $18,500. An Indio man who sold parking on his land without a business license was billed $3,200. An Indio woman who strung a Halloween decoration across the street in front of her home was billed $2,700.
It is notable that once the Sun began poking around, the cities said that they would “reconsider” the strategy for recovering. Then Silver & Wright pulled down its website. What a coinkydink!
Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit wrote that someone should file a bar complaint against the firm, but I can’t come up with an ethics violation covered under the California rules. The law firm’s conduct, while disgusting, was legal, and there is no apparent ethics rule breach. Charging excessive fees, perhaps?
But in pure accounting terms, the fees may not be excessive. A court system costs a lot of money, and has a lot of hidden expenses. This appears to be another example of unethical lawyers finding ways to do horrible things while still complying with the letter of the professional ethics rules. The city’s complicity, meanwhile, is supported by “user pays” arguments, like the argument that the city should bill you for the cost of putting out your house fire.
Lawyers are supposed to be professionals, which means they exist to make society better, not more brutish and nasty. Silver & Wright is serving a client legally, because the client makes the laws, but the firm is really helping a municipality prey on its own citizens, and profiting from it.
That’s unethical no matter what the rules say.
Source: Desert Sun