A class action lawsuit has been filed against California-based Silver & Wright and the cities of Indio and Coachella, alleging they cheated citizens in a for-profit prosecution scheme in which the law firm served as the cities’ deputy prosecutor for code enforcement.
The lawsuit, filed by the Institute for Justice and three O’Melveny & Myers attorneys on behalf of named plaintiff Ramona Morales, accuses Silver & Wright and the cities of violating the U.S. and California constitutions by having a financial stake in the cases they have brought against residents.
“The firm is funded by fees that it collects from the people it prosecutes, none of whom have any idea, when they plead guilty to minor infractions and misdemeanors, that their prosecutor has a personal, financial stake in their case and will later try to collect thousands of dollars in fees,” the attorneys stated in the complaint filed last Tuesday.
The lawsuit follows a Desert Sun investigation that revealed Silver & Wright had been criminally prosecuting Indio and Coachella residents for small nuisance crimes. In the case of Morales, the California homeowner was fined nearly $6,000 because one of her tenants was raising chickens in the backyard of her property in Indio.
On top of the $225 fine Morales paid for violating the city’s ordinances, Silver & Wright has billed her thousands of dollars for the cost of her own prosecution, according to the lawsuit.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that people don’t know what is going on,” said Jeffrey Redfern, the Institute for Justice’s lead attorney on the case. “There is no way you could know how your prosecutor is getting compensated.”
The complaint also says that as of November 2017, Silver & Wright had recovered more than $122,000 in fees in the cities of Indio and Coachella.
The Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm, is teaming up with O’Melveney partner Sabrina Strong and two associates in the lawsuit. If successful, the class action lawsuit will reverse all criminal convictions obtained by Silver & Wright in Riverside County, and lead to the return of prosecution fees that Ramona and others have paid. The suit also seeks to enjoin Silver & Wright from acting as a city prosecutor in the future.
“These are small issues that can be resolved with a less serious process,” said Redfern, who said he hopes the lawsuit will persuade other cities in Riverside County to dismiss Silver & Wright as their prosecutor for code enforcement and convince others considering hiring the firm for that purpose not to do so.
“Any neutral persecutor would have come up with an easier and better way to deal with the situation,” he added.
In a brief comment responding to the class action lawsuit, Silver & Wright co-founder Curtis Wright said that “the facts and law regarding these matters have not been accurately portrayed.”
“We look forward to the truth coming to light and the law enforcement process being vindicated in court,” he said.