When Michigan State recently upset Duke in the NCAA tournament, it was a shocker. Now imagine how shocked everyone would be if Duke’s Coach K demanded the NCAA send his team to the Final Four anyway. Afterall, Michigan State won fair and square. Yet something just as absurd is happening in Norco, California.
Norco is part of the greater Los Angeles area, but it is a unique community that has worked hard to preserve a distinctly rural feel. The city prides itself as “Horsetown, U.S.A.” and, in place of sidewalks, there are horse trails. Residents even ride their horses into town where there are hitching posts at many local businesses. It’s the place Ron Mugar has called home for decades.
The modest ranch home that Ron’s parents handed down to him is where he raised his son and four daughters, mostly as a single father. Ron loves to build things: solar arrays, a hybrid-electric go-kart, and classic cars. After retiring from a career in graphic design, he now spends his time tinkering on these devices in his backyard.
At times, the yard has become cluttered with materials and half-completed projects, leading to complaints from his neighbors. Whenever Ron was cited, however, he brought the property back into compliance. But two years ago, the city raised the stakes and Ron found himself battling for control of his home.
In recent years, private law firms have started to take over prosecution of code enforcement for California municipalities. They typically offer their services under the claim of “cost-neutral” enforcement that will net cities additional income. The hook is that these law firms then get to bill their services to the violator rather than the city, giving them a direct financial interest to abuse this system.
In Indio and Coachella, California, for example, where similar private-enforcement practices have taken place, residents have been cited for rather minor violations, like having chickens in the backyard or stringing Halloween decorations across the street. Property owners admitted to the offense and paid a modest fine, thinking that they had made things right. But months later, the private law firm then sent a bill for thousands of dollars asking residents to pay exorbitant rates for the cost of their own prosecution.
Ron faced a similarly devious scheme with a different wrinkle; in Ron’s case, he may well lose his home through a process called “receivership.” Receivership is a government tool intended to be used only in the most extreme circumstances. If a property is a threat to the health and safety of occupants and neighbors, the government appoints a “receiver” to fix things up. The property owner then has to compensate the receiver for the costs incurred. If they can’t afford the bill, the property goes to the receiver.
In April 2017, Norco’s appointed prosecutor—the attorneys at the for-profit firm of Dapeer, Rosenblit & Litvak LLP—targeted Ron for enforcement. They obtained a warrant to search Ron’s property inside and out. After a city inspector identified 20 code violations, Dapeer went to court asking to be appointed the receiver of Ron’s home.
With a court date approaching, Ron and his children worked hard to bring the property back into compliance. Unfortunately, just days before the hearing, Ron was admitted to the hospital and underwent heart surgery. The city’s private prosecutor refused to delay the hearing and the court granted the receivership petition.
But Ron didn’t give up. At great expense, he hired an attorney to appeal the decision, arguing both that the home was in compliance and that Ron had been medically unable to attend his hearing. Remarkably, he won a stay of the receivership. The city prosecutors decided to negotiate and offered Ron the chance to have the receivership dismissed if he could pass another inspection.
After further back and forth about whether old construction was properly permitted, Ron’s home passed inspection and the court eventually vacated the receivership. Ron thought he had won, but the city and its for-profit prosecutors filed a motion with the court to be “declared the prevailing party” and granted $60,000 in attorneys’ fees. The city lost its receivership game but wanted to be declared the winner regardless.
Thankfully, the Institute for Justice (IJ), which has been successfully fighting on behalf of Indio and Coachella residents, is now taking up Ron’s case. Astonishingly, the city claims that Ron needs to pay them in part because he used “obstructive tactics” to delay the receivership. The so-called obstruction was Ron’s defense in court of the right to keep his home.
Norco’s actions are unconstitutional and wrong on many levels. For one, both the U.S. and California Constitutions require prosecutors to be neutral, but here a private law firm is acting with government power and doing so with their own financial interests in mind. What’s more, Ron has a First Amendment right to access and petition the courts, but here the city is trying to bill Ron for defending his home. The government cannot take you to court and then threaten to make you pay if you have the wherewithal to successfully challenge its claims.
Ron may have won his case at the buzzer, but he won, and Norco doesn’t deserve a dime. IJ will help Ron keep his home and his money and, hopefully, set legal precedent that eliminates these private prosecution schemes once and for all.
- Originally posted on Forbes