ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Imagine pleading guilty to a minor crime like keeping chickens on your property and getting a bill for thousands of dollars from the city to pay for the lawyers who prosecuted you. That's called a prosecution fee, and California has just banned the practice in most cases. A small local paper in Southern California called The Desert Sun first called attention to prosecution fees with an investigative series over the last year. NPR reported on this subject, too, back in February. And all of this led to the new ban.
Brett Kelman reported The Desert Sun series, and I asked him how he learned about prosecution fees.
BRETT KELMAN: So last fall, I was doing what I normally do as a investigative reporter. I was reading lots and lots of court filings. And I came across a case filed by a Coachella resident named Cesar Garcia who had basically accused his city of attempting to blackmail him for about $31,000. And what Cesar said was that he had months beforehand expanded his house without getting a proper building permit. He got caught by the city. They charged him with a misdemeanor crime. He went to court. He took a plea. He paid his fine. He was sentenced to probation. And he thought the case was over. He assumed that justice had been served. But then, like, eight months later, he got a bill from the city, a bill he never knew that was coming that said he had to reimburse the city for the cost of prosecuting himself.
SHAPIRO: And there were lots of other cases like his in the surrounding area.
KELMAN: There were. I did a little bit of public records work and figured out that basically two cities in a relatively low-income corner of the Southern California desert had done this to about 18 of their residents. And sometimes the cases were really small. They were - you know, one woman, for example, hung a Halloween decoration on a street light. She got prosecuted, pleaded guilty to a violation, which is no more serious than a traffic ticket. And the city tried to bill her almost $5,000 to pay for her own prosecution.
SHAPIRO: You found out that these cities had outsourced the prosecution of these minor offenses. And you traced it all back to one law firm. Tell us about them.
KELMAN: I did. Coachella and their neighbor Indio employed a law firm named Silver & Wright that pretty much specialized in this kind of work. I think they had kind of invented this practice of taking very small crimes to court, charging people, prosecuting them criminally and then later billing them with bills they never saw coming. Eventually we did a very large public records project and also figured out that Silver & Wright had done the same thing in the city of Fontana, which is about an hour away.
SHAPIRO: When this bill came before the California Legislature, it encountered some opposition from city governments, officials who represent cities. And they argued that without a more aggressive approach, people won't take these kinds of minor citations seriously. What do you make of that argument?
KELMAN: The flaw with that argument is that there is a legal system to deal with this. In each of these cases, these defendants were prosecuted. They went to court. They were fined by a judge. Most the time they got probation. And they felt that justice had been served. Most of them were angry with the sentence from the judge 'cause they thought that was too harsh. But eight months later, when they got a bill for $30,000, suddenly the judges' $400 fine didn't seem so harsh anymore. So I get the impression that these defendants would have taken this pretty seriously regardless 'cause they still got pulled the court and thrown in front of a judge and charged with a crime.
SHAPIRO: You wrote about this practice for The Desert Sun, which is a very small, local paper, the kind of local paper that has been closing across the country in huge numbers over the last few years. What does this make you think about the role of community-based journalism?
KELMAN: Well, I think that a lot of little papers are struggling because it's hard to make the numbers meet. But most of them are perfectly capable of uncovering really serious problems like this one. And big papers like the Los Angeles Times, which Palm Springs is sort of on the orbit of, can't be expected to get into the nuance of little government policies like this one. So if we lose small papers like The Desert Sun, there's just not going to be journalistic institutions to find these things in your neighborhood. Unless you live in major markets like New York or LA or Dallas or Miami, there's not going to be journalists watching out for what's happening in your neck of the woods.
SHAPIRO: That's Brett Kelman, now a reporter for The Tennessean, talking about a series he reported over the last year for the Desert Sun paper on prosecution fees, a practice now outlawed in California. Thanks for joining us.
KELMAN: Happy to be here.
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