The Palm Springs Desert Sun investigates a local government practice in California’s Coachella Valley in which property owners guilty of minor offenses are billed “prosecution fees” that can top $200,000. In one 2015 case, Cesar Garcia was fined $900 for failing to get a building permit to expand his living room. Earlier this year, a law firm that acts as the local prosecutor sent him a $31,000 bill for the cost of his case, threatening liquidation of his house. Garcia’s experience is not unusual in low-income cities of the Coachella Valley. Empowered by city councils in Coachella and Indio, the law firm Silver & Wright has repeatedly filed criminal charges against residents and businesses for public nuisance crimes – overgrown weeds or selling popsicles without a business license – then billed them thousands of dollars to recoup expenses.
Coachella leaders said this week they will reconsider the strategy after defense attorneys challenged in court the exorbitant fees of the privatized prosecutors. “Fixing his house was just a side effect. Collecting this money was always their goal,” said attorney Shaun Sullivan, who represents Garcia. The Desert Sun identified 18 cases in which Indio and Coachella charged defendants more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since they hired Silver & Wright as prosecutors a few years ago. With the addition of numerous fees, the total price tag can rise to more than $200,000. In most of those cases, the disparity between the crime and the cost is staggering. Defendants fined a few hundred dollars ended up paying five or ten times that much to prosecutors who attended a couple of court hearings. One Coachella family with a busted garage door and a trashy yard was billed $18,500.