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Brett Kelman @BrettKelman
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Last fall, I started writing a series on “prosecution fees,” a legal trick used in California cities that makes poor people pay a small fortune for tiny crimes. Today, because of my series, Gov. Jerry Brown made prosecution fees illegal. This is the power of local journalism. 1/
Today, I work for @Tennessean in Nashville, but I wrote this series as an investigative reporter at @MyDesert, a badass little newspaper in the Coachella Valley. It is home to some of the hungriest young journalists in Southern California.
My reporting began, as it often does, with a court filing. Cesar Garcia filed a lawsuit saying Coachella City Hall was blackmailing him for $31K. He owned a grocery store in the desert pit stop of Blythe. His wife ran a daycare. They were hard working; comfortable but not rich.
Cesar’s allegations were strange: He had expanded his house without a building permit, got caught and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor crimes. Months later, the city surprised him with a huge bill, demanding he pay to prosecute himself. Lawyers threatened to take his house.
Immediately, I wanted to know if this case was a fluke. Was Coachella doing this to other people? I wasn’t sure. So I filed a public records request using a key phrase from Cesar’s lawsuit – “prosecution fees.”
I filed the request with Coachella City Hall, then sent a duplicate request to the neighboring the city of Indio. Both cities employed the same law firm, Silver & Wright, so I had a hunch they might use the same tricks in court.
Weeks went by. Then I got my records. Eighteen! There were at least 18 cases where Coachella or Indio had demanded “prosecution fees” from residents. Coachella wanted $26K from a woman with a junky yard. Indio wanted $5K from a man who sold parking without a business license.
In one case, city attorneys had even tried to charge a woman $4,200 to prosecute herself for hanging a Halloween decoration off of a street light.
I spent a few days driving around Coachella and Indio, looking for these people. Most were skittish, but a few talked. The consensus was clear: Nobody knew they were going to have to pay for their own prosecution when they pleaded guilty. They had been hoodwinked.
And so, my first story published.…
The feedback was immediate. Readers were furious at what city leaders had done. Lawyers told me this was the kind of stuff that made people hate lawyers. Both the ACLU and the Institute for Justice said the story had caught their eye.
I started on a second story. Of the 18 cases revealed in public records requests, one didn’t make any sense. Coachella had billed a landowner, Marjorie Sansom, about $39,000. It was the largest amount on my list. But here was the mystery: Marjorie was missing.
She owned an empty lot across from a school. It was covered in garbage & syringes, evidence of illegal dumping and a homeless camp. Coachella sent her a dozen fines, then took her to court. When she didn’t show up, they got a court order to clean the lot and sent her the bill.
But no one had actually spoken to or seen Sansom. And she had no other address and zero online presence.
On a hunch, I filed public records requests with three counties, looking for a death certificate. I also filed another request with Coachella, asking for their entire file on Sansom's case. And the stuff that came back was NUTS.
Sansom was dead. She died after a long battle with dementia, in the care of her grandson. Coachella mailed her fines to a house where she hadn’t lived for years. The city KNEW THE HOUSE WAS EMPTY but sent her fines there anyway, then prepared to take her land when she didn’t pay.
That land now belonged to Sansom’s grandson, a final gift for his loving care. But they didn’t know about the debt to Coachella and had no idea they were on the verge of losing Sansom’s land. They found out from me.
And so, my second story was published. Again, readers were outraged. Maybe even more than before. I could feel momentum growing.…
The next story was easy. The @IJ , a libertarian public-interest law firm, jumped int the fray. Citing my reporting, they filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ramona Morales, an Indio landlord. The city billed her $7,600 because her tenant had backyard chickens.…
A week later, I wrote again. I returned to the story of Isabell Sanchez, the Coachella woman with the junky yard. The city wanted $26K. She had filed a plea in court, desperate for help: “I am poor and might lose my home.”…
I wrote one more big story about prosecution fees before I left California. It required more than a dozen records requests and a review of hundreds of pages of dense city records. In the end, I found the same lawyers using the same scheme in the blue-collar city of Fontana.
This time, their victim was Peter Nolopp, a retired steelworker. He was prosecuted for misdemeanors and forced to pay a surprise $29K. Peter did not mince words: "They screwed me."…
Some of these people still have battles to fight in court, but after the bill that @JerryBrownGov signed today, this scheme will not happen to any more Californians. Prosecution fees are dead.
The goal of this thread is not to brag, it is to show the grit and dedication of local journalists. We love our homes and we protect them in a way that no one else does. We are not your enemy, and anyone who says we are has something to hide.
Ours hours are long, our pay is shit and the work is rarely glamorous. But sometimes it makes the world a better place to live.

So buy a damn newspaper subscription already.
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