A California Law Is Being Used by Cities to Steal Homes

Photo of author

(Newswire.net — November 12, 2018) — Less than one year after a Desert Sun investigation revealed that Indio and Coachella had hired an outside law firm to prosecute residents found in violation of municipal ordinances, then charged them thousands in “prosecution fees,” the practice has been officially outlawed in California.

In the low-income cities of the eastern Coachella Valley, this political persecution is not uncommon. 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 – overgrown weeds, a messy yard, or selling popsicles without a business license – and fined them thousands of dollars. Coachella leaders said this week they will reconsider the criminal prosecution’s strategy, but only after a PR nightmare exposé by defense attorneys, who asserted that the private prosecutors are forcing exorbitant costs on unsuspecting home-owners causing them to lose their properties.

However, the law was only outlawed for criminal cases; no change has been made regarding civil prosecution. In fact, biased and unfair civil verdicts are alive and well in San Francisco, such as those made by Judge Angela Bradstreet to punish black landlord Anne Kihagi. Cities like San Francisco are a mighty force in shaping policies and laws and they have been a big beneficiary of these laws. The governor’s adjustment of the aforementioned law was certainly under significant pressure from some of these major cities.

Ms. Kihagi and other San Franciscans have learned that, while many laws effectively protect citizens, some leave a lot of room for interpretation, especially in California.

For instance, another California Health & Safety Code (17980.7d) clause requires “the owner to pay all reasonable and actual costs,” meaning that fees must be both reasonable and representative of the actual costs. Now, clever lawyers are focusing exclusively on “reasonable” to keep things subjective and confusing, enabling them to charge more. Was this the intent of legislature? It’s doubtful, as the law was put in place to help cities recover the cost of repairs and City Attorneys to recover their salaries in the urban blight of the 1980s. With courts now permitting a “reasonable”-only interpretation, City prosecutors are pricing themselves with the likes of private attorneys in wealthy California jurisdictions.

In one case from Alameda County, the court affirmed that the fee must be both reasonable and actual, maintaining the original intent. However, other courts have allowed “reasonable” costs to supersede “actual” costs. Because interpretations of “reasonable” are wildly diverse and subjective, government prosecutors have been able to inflate costs, effectively changing the laws intent.

San Francisco v. Anne Kihagi perfectly demonstrated this perversion. In this case, despite the positive testimony of five accomplished building inspectors who had knowledge of and visited the landlord’s buildings, the judge awarded more than $1.25 million to the City based on the testimony of a single inspector – with no plumbing or electrical experience – who had never been to any of the landlord’s properties.

To make matters worse, the court then added “reasonable” legal fees that translated to approximately six times the salaries of these public prosecutors. By labeling them as “reasonable” costs, the court was legally able to pile on ridiculous fees, netting a whopping $2.5 million. A biased judge like Judge Angela Bradstreet would naturally take advantage of the situation and consider just about anything “reasonable.”

This easily commandeered ambiguity could mean losing your home and your livelihood. This is why it is heartbreaking that the California Governor outlawed the attorney fees in criminal cases but not civil cases.

Why should City Attorneys be rewarded with exponential multiple of their salaries? Does this not sway their motivation for cases where they can extract exponential fees? Furthermore, are they not City employees whose purpose is to serve the people? This profit-center mentality inspires government prosecutors to prolong cases; in Ms. Kihagi’s case, the City of San Francisco dedicated an entire department to create what one judge called “oppressive discovery” and a deluge trial approach against Ms. Kihagi’s solo practitioner attorney. You can see how easily, with such a perverse interpretation, San Francisco is able to continue this abuse of reasonable rather than “actual” costs. Contrary to what recent activity might imply, the City is not a private litigation business.

This California law clearly leaves a lot to for abuse. Please help end this injustice by contacting your local senators to reevaluate the unintended ambiguity that has led to loss of homes.

For more information on Anne Kihagi and West 18 Properties, visit http://annekihagisf.com/.