They Confessed to Minor Crimes. Then City Hall Billed Them $122K in ‘Prosecution Fees’

COACHELLA, Calif. – When Cesar Garcia pulled the letter out of his mailbox, he immediately recognized the name of the law firm on the envelope – Silver & Wright. Eighteen months ago, they had dragged him to court, called him a criminal, cost him thousands of dollars and made his life hell. What did they want now?

Garcia opened the letter, prepared for the worst, but was still shocked by what he found inside.

The law firm had sent him a bill for $26,000.

When he protested, the price climbed to $31,000.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Garcia said. “But then they told me no. They said I had to pay.”

Garcia, 41, a longtime desert resident, had been snared by the lowest level of the eastern Coachella Valley’s criminal justice system, where homeowners who commit some of the smallest crimes can be billed for the cost of their own prosecution. Garcia got in trouble with Coachella City Hall in 2015 after a city code inspector discovered he had expanded his living room, making space to run a small day care center, without first getting building permits. Silver & Wright, a law firm contracted as Coachella’s city prosecutor, took the building permit case to criminal court, filing 29 misdemeanor charges. Garcia signed a plea agreement, brought his house up to code, paid a $900 fine to the court and moved on with his life. But then, this April, Silver & Wright mailed Garcia that hefty bill for the cost of his case, saying if he didn’t pay up a lien would be put on his property and the city could potentially sell the house from under his feet.

Garcia’s case may sound strange, but in the low-income cities of the eastern Coachella Valley, it is not. Empowered by the city councils in Coachella and Indio, the law firm Silver & Wright has repeatedly filed criminal charges against residents and businesses for public nuisance crimes – like overgrown weeds, a junk-filled yard 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 criminal prosecutions strategy, but the change only came after defense attorneys challenged the city in court, saying the privatized prosecutors are forcing exorbitant costs on unsuspecting residents.

“Fixing his house was just a side effect. Collecting this money was always their goal,” said attorney Shaun Sullivan, who represents Garcia in a lawsuit seeking to erase his $31,000 bill from Silver & Wright.

“They saw a potential payday and jumped at it,” Sullivan added. “When it’s this easy, and this lucrative, they are going to look for ways and opportunities to do this as often as possible.”

Through an extensive review of public records, The Desert Sun has identified 18 cases in which Indio and Coachella charged defendants more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since the cities hired Silver & Wright as prosecutors a few years ago. With the addition of code enforcement fees, administration fees, abatement fees, litigation fees and appeal fees, the total price tag rises to more than $200,000.

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