When Should You Contact A Lawyer For A Code Enforcement Problem?

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law.

Many California cities have departed from filing misdemeanor or infraction citations or complaints in their local Superior Court.  The reason why is that the Government Code provides a more efficient process with administrative citations.  For many situations, such as leaving your garbage cans out too long, it makes more sense to pay an administrative citation then to be arraigned on a criminal citation.   Further, with the ever-increasing amount of penalties piled upon criminal citations, it is also beneficial to the violator to only have to pay $100 for a ticket.  The city or town benefits because they get the entire fine, minus any processing fee from a third party administrator, versus getting roughly half of the base fine for the criminal citation.  In most cases, the alleged violator does not need an attorney.  Even when it is a criminal case, unless your time is exceedingly valuable or you will be out of the area at the time, it does not make sense to pay an attorney to appear on your behalf.

The number one way to get rid of a code enforcement problem is to come into compliance with the ordinance.  Sometimes that is not possible for financial, logistical, or other reasons.  However, an attorney is often the wrong tool to deal with financial problems, as the attorney’s fee will increase the cost to remedy the situation.  Sometimes an attorney can help with the process and explain the situation, and work with the agency to come up with a compliance plan.

However, with administrative civil penalties cases, where the city wants to charge the property owner up to a thousand dollars a day for a continuing violation, it may make sense to speak to an attorney sooner than later.  Once the citation becomes a lien against the property, depending on the implementing ordinance, it may be impossible for anyone — including a skilled attorney, to do anything about the situation.  Also, attorneys will not guarantee results, because with code enforcement,  the same City that cited the alleged violator that must be convinced to change their course.

Alleged code enforcement violators like to think that they are being singled out for selective enforcement, or some kind of discrimination is at hand.  Though that may be the case, having hundreds of junked cars on a property makes a selective enforcement case difficult to win.  Though code enforcement departments sometimes very technical interpretations of vague municipal codes that are problems, the majority of code enforcement cases are not based on animus towards the property owner.

For out-of town landlords and property holders, it sometimes helps to have an attorney who has dealt with a code enforcement department in the past.  Each code enforcement situation is different, and property owners and tenants should consult with an attorney about their particular situation.

The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog.  You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, LLP
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      Redlands, CA 92374
T: (909) 296-6708