Can You Go to Jail for Not Getting a Building Permit?

Building a structure without a permit (with exceptions on the meaning of structure under the California Building Code) is a misdemeanor in most California local entities. Usually, the punishment for a misdemeanor under most municipal codes includes jail time. Let me choose two California cities at random: Sacramento and El Cajon to illustrate this point:

Sacramento Municipal Code section 

1.28.020 Criminal sanctions—Misdemeanors and infractions.

  1. It is unlawful for any person to violate any provision or to fail to comply with any of the requirements of this code, including any administrative order issued hereunder. Any person violating any of the provisions, or failing to comply with any of the requirements of this code, including an administrative order, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, except where it has been provided by state law or this code that the violator shall be guilty of an infraction. Any person convicted of a misdemeanor under the provisions of this code shall be punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00), or not less than five hundred dollars ($500.00), or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period not exceeding six months, or by both fine and imprisonment; provided that violations of Chapter 13.10 of this code regarding unlawful dumping shall be punishable by a fine of not less than five hundred dollars ($500.00), or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period not exceeding six months, or by both fine and imprisonment.

El Cajon Municipal Code:

1.24.010 Designated violations-Misdemeanors and infractions.
A.    It shall be unlawful for any person to violate any provision or to fail to comply with any of the requirements of this code. A violation of any of the provisions or failing to comply with any of the mandatory requirements of this code shall constitute a misdemeanor except that notwithstanding any other provisions of this code, any such violation constituting a misdemeanor under this code may, in the discretion of the attorney having prosecutorial functions, be charged and prosecuted as an infraction; and with the further exception that any violation of the provisions relating to parking, operation of bicycles, operation of motor vehicles, and use of freeways, highways and streets by animals, bicycles, motor vehicles or pedestrians shall constitute an infraction.

B.     Any person convicted of a misdemeanor under the provisions of this code, unless provision is otherwise made in this code, shall be punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by imprisonment in the county jail for a period of not more than six months, or by both fine and imprisonment.

So, in both of these randomly chosen California cities, punishment of a misdemeanor shall be punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months, or both.

So, do people go to jail for building without a building permit?  Probably not.  In the linked case, in the news today, the sentence was 200 hours community service, three years informal probation, and $14,191 in restitution, with an additional restitution hearing set.

That case involved a celebrity (or at least celebrity-adjacent) and a solid lawyer.  But perhaps the notoriety of the case informed its outcome (meaning the prosecutor was a little more zealous). And still, no jail time.

Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, LLP
A: 1447 Ford St. #201
      Redlands, CA 92374
T: (909) 296-6708
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Code Enforcement Gone Wild

I was a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino and the Assistant City Attorney for the City of Redlands. Along with another Deputy, I advised what was then the Code Enforcement Department in San Bernardino.  The City of Redlands had different code enforcement issues than the City of San Bernardino, but code enforcement was an important part of my job in Redlands.

We were not on the leading edge in San Bernardino (everything we did was pioneered at larger cities), but we tried to employ as many code enforcement tools as possible. We were never successfully sued in a code enforcement case while I was there.

However, now that I represent citizens, I see all kind of ticky-tack things that other entities do.  Here is an article from the Salt Lake Tribune

“Ogden tells dad to take down his kids’ cardboard castle because it’s ‘junk'”

Now, this is in Utah, but most cities and counties in California have a similar ordinance that prohibits junk, trash, and debris in your front yard.  However, just because it’s technically illegal doesn’t mean that the City should cite for it.

Looking at the link from the story, this is the City of Ogden ordinance:

 

12-4-2: WASTE MATERIALS OR JUNK; PROHIBITED ON PREMISES:

A. Prohibition: It is unlawful for any owner, occupant, agent or lessee of real property within the city, to allow, cause or permit the following material or objects to be in or upon any yard, garden, lawn, or outdoor premises of such property:

1. Junk or salvage material;

2. Litter;

3. Any abandoned vehicle or inoperable vehicle.

In California, our ordinances tend not to be as vague as this code section.

Does a cardboard castle even qualify as “junk” or “litter?” If it were in California and I were reviewing a notice (which I believe I did sometimes in Redlands) or a citation (in San Bernardino), I would probably turn it down.

As I teach code enforcement officers in training, just because something can be cited doesn’t mean it should be.

I think the reaction by the resident was the right course of action.

“Had he not received the letter, he was planning on taking the castle down soon anyway. But after receiving it, he now plans to keep it up until just before the penalty.”

Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, LLP
A: 1447 Ford St. #201
      Redlands, CA 92374
T: (909) 296-6708