Legal, Compliant, And Wrong: A Law Firm Helps Two California Cities Prey On Their Own Citizens

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.

___________________________

Pointer: Reason

Source: Desert Sun

 

18 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Citizenship, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions

18 responses to “Legal, Compliant, And Wrong: A Law Firm Helps Two California Cities Prey On Their Own Citizens

  1. JP

    Isn’t this legal extortion?

    • JP

      This just pisses me off. Not that the law firm did it, but that the government was complicit. More and more it seems the average citizen is screwed by the government. I don’t understand when we have so many things like this, people believe the government has our best interest at heart.

  2. Sharon

    I would like to take this time to apologize to all the busybodies in the Home Owner’s Organization to whom I am forced to pay dues.

  3. Sharon

    I found this information about Coachella but the date was 2006. I imagine not much has changed. At that time, Coachella ranked third lowest in average personal income of any California city. Coachella was also named as one of the ten poorest cities in California at the time. The sleaze factor just went up for these attorneys. They knew the citizens would not have the money to fight back.

  4. Good lord. They pull that straight from Prince John’s playbook?

  5. Greg

    I think the odds are high that we will soon see arrests of city council members for receiving kickbacks from the law firm. I can’t think of any other reason why they would have adopted this practice or allowed it to continue.

    I see from Wikipedia that not only is Coachella one of the ten poorest cities in California but that in the 2010 Census it was 96.4% Hispanic or Latino. Indio was 67.8% Hispanic or Latino. This sounds suspiciously like another in the long history of corrupt politicians exploiting naive immigrants, especially those who come from countries with a tradition of corruption.

    • Isaac

      The Coachella city council, including the mayor, consists of Steven Hernandez, Emmanuel Martinez, Philip Bautista, Steve Brown, and Betty Sanchez. This is some brown on brown crime.

      • Other Bill

        Clearly, this is why we need more diversity. We need more Hispanic style winner takes all corruption in the U.S. That will make us a better nation. We don’t have enough corruption.

  6. Is it actually legal in those towns to bill them for the cost of the prosecution in addition to the standard fine? Why wouldn’t the prosecution be covered by taxes? If they wanted to take the burden off of the taxpayers, then they’d raise the fines, which would be public knowledge. The way they’ve got it set up, the penalty for being brought to court for these issues is greater than what a person would be able to tell by reading the actual laws. It’s like a hidden fee for getting arrested.

    • Isaac

      It’s like when business charge an extra “service fee,” except in this case the service offered is the act of already having taken some of your money.

      • Ooooh! I pay “service fees” like that when I buy tickets to baseball games!

        Good description, Isaac. I am copying it and keeping it:

        “[T]he service offered [for which a business charges a “service fee”] is the act of already having taken some of your money.”

        “Profit center,” indeed.

  7. I don’t think it’s unusual for private firms to represent the state in civil matters, including in contingency cases. If a community wants to go that way, it would seem better to increase fines and then have the law firm keep a percentage of anything recovered. As is often true, it’s disturbing what’s being treated as a criminal offense in the first place.

  8. From reading the articles, these cases start when a town inspector cites someone or some business for a code violation (like a trashy lawn). If the issue doesn’t get fixed, the city has a choice of taking it to civil or criminal court. Both venues allow for recovery of legal fees. Apparently fees in civil court have to be approved by the judge but not so for criminal court. Gee, could that possibly be a factor in this law firm deciding to use the criminal court?

    I’ve worked for a company that tried to turn a profit off penalizing its employees — hard to imagine living in a predatory town that did the same thing.

    The cliche ‘speed traps’ down here in the South were run (I always thought) to fleece outsiders, not their own residents.

    • luckyesteeyoreman

      It seems rioting is in order for the people of those California towns. Along with terrorism, with angry “muscle” stalking and brutalizing the attorneys, law firm employees, and city council members, and their families – driving them out of town to someplace else where they think they might get away with the same rip-offs (Sacramento?).

      The rioters should break into the law firm’s offices in those towns (city halls, too) and clean out everything that isn’t welded to the buildings’ superstructures. Burn the scamming thieves’ cars. Pee in their pools. Trash their houses and exterior real estate, then get some wiseacre with a printer to provide copies, so the rioters can litter the trashed residences with mock Notices of WARNING to CLEAN UP within SEVEN DAYS or else, VACATE IMMEDIATELY and face LOSS OF TITLE.

      In the meantime, certain cyber-savvy rioters should be seeking help from Anonymous, to hack into financial accounts of the city council members and law firm and employees thereof – stealing identities, and ripping-off from the ripper-offers as they have ripped off others.

      Earned and justifiable anarchy is such fun! Authentic Frontier Justice!

  9. Kyjo

    My parents complain that their city won’t enforce code violations against their trashy neighbors. I suppose neglect isn’t as bad as this, though.

  10. Check out what they are doing to commercial property owners in Stockton. Check out Cross- Complaint in City of Stockton v Bennit and appeal in City of Stockton v Singh

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