California’s politicians and bureaucrats are veritable Einsteins when it comes to finding creative ways to squeeze more money from their citizens.

With Sacramento sucking even more money from tax payers, recently in the form of a new gasoline tax, city governments have had to become quite imaginative.

Therefore, some of the state’s desert communities are now hitting up residents with “prosecution fees”. For example, when homeowners are hit with code enforcement violations such as dirty backyards, they are charged a “prosecution fee” in addition to the fine and cost of repairing the problem.  The total cost to them can be staggering…and raised if they challenge the initial charge.

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.

In most of those cases, the disparity between the crime and the cost is staggering. Defendants who faced no jail time and were fined only a few hundred dollars ended up paying five or ten times that much to prosecutors who attended a couple of court hearings.

For example, a Coachella family with a busted garage door and an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $18,500.

Reason contributor Scott Shackford reviewed the records and uncovered some high-priced prosecutions.

In Coachella, a man was fined $900 for expanding his living room without getting a permit. He paid his fine. Then more than a year later he got a bill in the mail from Silver & Wright for $26,000. They told him that he had to pay the cost of prosecuting him, and if he didn’t, they could put a lien on his house and the city could sell it against his will. When he appealed the bill they charged him even more for the cost of defending against the appeal. The bill went from $26,000 to $31,000.

…A woman fined for hanging Halloween decorations across a city street received legal bill for $2,700. When she challenged it, the bill jumped to $4,200.

Shackford took a look at Silver & Wright, and made some fascinating discoveries. Matthew Silver, one of the firm’s partners, is also a vice president for the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers…so he is leading a professional association for government employees responsible for enforcing the laws that lead to his firm’s billable hours.

The Silver & Wright website promoting their work seems directed to appealing to politicos and bureaucrats who want to drain citizens of their hard earned money:

At Silver & Wright LLP, our attorneys specialize in providing effective, efficient, and responsive legal services to public agencies through receiverships, nuisance abatement, code enforcement, and cost recovery. We have helped numerous cities and counties throughout California achieve their goals of increasing public safety, reducing blight, and recovering enforcement costs. Our attorneys have developed unique and cutting edge practices to achieve success for our clients and make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral. In these tough economic times, recovering enforcement costs is a vital tool for public agencies. One of the most powerful tools available to local agencies is the ability to obtain a receivership over a piece of real property and bring it into compliance with state and local law, at no cost to the local agency. [emphasis added]

I will simply note that the quote highlighted above has been edited since Shackford quoted the following on the same site:

“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.” [Emphasis in original]

The “revenue producing” language still appears on their Law Crossing profile and on their Facebook page.

However, the line about receiverships jumped right out at me, and I went to the Silver & Wright LLP link to that topic:

In a receivership, the receiver takes total control over the property, prevents the owner from interfering and hires contractors to completely fix the property. All costs are paid from the property itself by a super- priority lien that jumps even in front of mortgages.

While I appreciate the challenges of dealing with some properties, this seems like it should be an action of last resort. Perhaps if Silver & Wright LLP had targeted real hoarders who pose some kind of public safety threat instead of Halloween decorations, I might be less uneasy.

The Desert Sun also interviewed one of the lawyers who took on the prosecution team. His assessment was cutting:

…Silver & Wright billed the defendants more than six times what they were charged by [Leonard] Cravens, their actual lawyer.

“It’s absolutely a scam – you can quote me on that,” Cravens said. “They pick the most expensive way to get the job done, in criminal court, because it’s all about the money.”

In September, Cravens signed a sworn statement in county court, calling the prosecution fees charged by city prosecutors “unreasonable,” “unconscionable” and intended “only to enrich their own pockets.”

I would like to commend the Desert Sun for actually doing real investigative journalism and targeting the powerful and connected. I am glad this type of reporting is not extinct, especially in this state.

Now, if only our politicians would turn their creativity toward finding real solutions to real problems, California might be the Golden State again.