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Most American cities and towns can fine you if your front yard is cluttered, if your party gets too loud or if you add onto your house without a permit. These nuisance and code violations are usually handled with a relatively small fine and a request to fix the problem. Now some cities in Southern California are prosecuting code violators criminally and slapping homeowners with gigantic legal bills that they can't afford to pay. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story from the Coachella Valley.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Ramona Morales, who turns 80 in May, is technically a criminal. Her offense - chickens - not hers, actually. They were her tenants'.
RAMONA MORALES: Beautiful chickens, beautiful roosters.
WESTERVELT: Beautiful but annoying and against the City of Indio's municipal code. An inspector in this sunbaked Coachella Valley city sent her tenants and then Ramona several warnings. The chickens got to go. When she finally went to the city to clear it all up, she was baffled to find out she had to go to court. She was being criminally prosecuted for her tenants' annoying chickens.
MORALES: In the court, they told me, how do you plead - guilty, not guilty? I have to say guilty because if I don't say guilty, I have to pay for the lawyers. I say guilty. I pay $225.
WESTERVELT: And you thought that was the end of it.
MORALES: Yes, but it wasn't like that.
WESTERVELT: It wasn't like that at all. She soon got a legal bill for $5,659. That's on top of the fine she'd already paid. The city says it's what it costs to prosecute her. She borrowed money from her son who's in the Marine Corps to pay the nearly $6,000.
MORALES: That much money for some roosters I think is way too much. It's unfair.
WESTERVELT: The cost recovery bill she got was from the private law firm of Silver & Wright that the City of Indio had hired. California law allows cities to recover all costs for nuisance crimes, including attorney's fees, if the city has the appropriate ordinances. Attorneys at Silver & Wright have helped about a dozen California cities rewrite their codes, including Indio and neighboring Coachella, to expand the kind of property violations that constitute a public nuisance and to make cost recovery easier.
CESAR GARCIA: My name is Cesar Garcia. And I get a fine for the City of Coachella of 31,000 for code violations.
WESTERVELT: Thirty-one thousand because Garcia didn't get a permit for an addition on his house, a small add-on room in the back his wife needed to expand her state-licensed home-based child care business. Garcia commutes three hours a day to his job as a grocery store manager. He doesn't have 31 grand to spare. He now deeply regrets he didn't pull a permit and worries he could lose everything he's worked for.
GARCIA: The letter that I receive - they say that if I don't pay the 31,000, they're going to put a lien on my house. You know, to lose my house - you know, that's too much.
WESTERVELT: The law firm's co-founder Curtis Wright says neither the city nor his firm is trying to take away anyone's home, and he says it's still pretty rare to take nuisance cases the criminal route. But, Wright adds, sometimes fines and the civil process just don't work to get people to clean up their messes. I asked him if he thought the legal bills are proportionate to the no-permit addition and chickens in the yard crimes.
CURTIS WRIGHT: No, I don't think that they're proportionate. But you've got to understand that if the defendant is going to be uncooperative after they've - notices and administrative opportunity to comply and then we get into their criminal case and they're still not being cooperative and they're going to drag things out and drive up the public's cost, then the public's entitled to get that money back. It's not intended to be punitive at all.
WESTERVELT: But many of those who've been prosecuted criminally for annoyance violations say they were totally unaware and never warned that they faced potentially massive legal fees on top of local fines. Today the nonprofit legal group Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit alleging that it's unconstitutional for Silver & Wright and these cities to have a financial stake in the nuisance cases. Lead attorney Jeffrey Redfern...
JEFFREY REDFERN: There shouldn't be a business model for code enforcement. If this gets allowed by the courts, this model could really spread.
WESTERVELT: Redfern hopes others will join his lawsuit and that it gains statewide class-action status. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Coachella, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.