New Law Limits Cost Recovery for Municipal Code Violations

California lawmakers have banned a practice that allowed some cities to collect large fees for relatively minor code violations.

Assembly Bill 2495 passed both chambers with near unanimous support and was signed by the governor on September 5. It prohibits local governments from tacking on legal fees associated with investigating and prosecuting local ordinance violations in criminal court. Individuals can still be prosecuted and fined for the violations but will no longer be responsible for the prosecution fees in most cases. Municipalities may pursue cost recovery through the administrative process, but not through criminal prosecution.

“We made the argument that, yes, people should comply with local code enforcement laws, but violators should remain in the civil side of prosecution instead of the criminal side,” said Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) who co-sponsored the measure with Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley).

Attorney Jeffrey Redfern with the Institute for Justice concurred.

“Criminal prosecutors should decide what charges to bring solely on what’s just. When prosecutors have a financial incentive in a criminal case to run up the bills and impose punitive measures - that violates due process.”

The practice of charging residents for the legal costs associated with local code violations was the subject of an explosive investigation by the Desert Sun earlier this year. The investigation found that two cities had outsourced the prosecution of the cases and traced nearly all of them back to a single law firm. It chronicled a number of residents who had received excessive charges for minor infractions, including one woman fined thousands of dollars because her renter was keeping chickens on the property.

Two lawsuits against the cities of Indio and Coachella over the practice remain ongoing. Indio appears likely to settle the case.

Read more about the new legislation here