Lawyers Hit Plan to Bill Accused for Police Costs
A proposed ordinance that would allow the city of Anaheim to bill people accused of crimes for the costs of police investigations--even if the suspects ultimately are acquitted--was criticized Wednesday by defense attorneys who termed it blatantly unconstitutional.
“It sounds like the police officers’ fair employment act,” said Richard Hirsch, a Santa Monica lawyer and past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an association of defense attorneys. “It’s taking away people’s rights and liberties. I don’t see how it can be justified.”
Thomas Nolan, a Palo Alto attorney and president of the group, was even more outspoken:
“It’s pure politics. It’s not a practical solution to the problem of paying for services, It’s a solution the voters would like to hear. It’s not workable,” he said.
The Anaheim City Council gave preliminary approval to the ordinance Tuesday on a 5-0 vote. There was no council discussion and no one in the sparse audience spoke about it.
Officials say the measure could save the city millions of dollars each year on the costs of investigating, apprehending and prosecuting suspected criminals. They argue that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the actions of wrongdoers and say the measure may act as a deterrent.
But City Atty. Jack White said no estimate has been made of just how much the city is likely to recover if the ordinance is passed, nor have costs of investigations been calculated. White said his office has a budget of $600,000 for prosecutions.
Civil Suits for Collection
The proposed ordinance provides for the city to compute costs and bill the accused even if criminal charges are not filed or are dismissed, or if the person is acquitted. If the person refuses to pay, the city can file a civil lawsuit to collect the money.
Anaheim is among many cities in the state that have sought to shift the burden of paying for police services from the general taxpayer to accused criminals. Several cities have passed laws that allow them to recover costs from drunk driving suspects and to fine hosts of loud parties for the cost of police response to disturbance calls.
But legal authorities say the Anaheim measure is the most far-reaching of its kind, and many assert that such measures may go too far.
“It offends my notion of the presumption of innocence; it offends my notion of due process of law. I have enormous problems with it,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC professor of law. “My guess is that it is a trend sparked by governments at all levels trying to deal with the budget crisis. In many cases there will be no constitutional objections to these efforts.”
Yvonne Hunter, a legislative representative of the California League of Cities, said her organization will not take a position on the proposed Anaheim ordinance or others that seek to recover costs for services, but she agreed that such laws might seem like a way out for many cities that find themselves in increasing financial straits.
Alva Cooper, a lobbyist for the California Peace Officers, Police Chiefs and State Sheriffs Assn. in Sacramento, said that if the Anaheim measure passes--it is up for final adoption Tuesday--"14 other cities in the state will have one next year.”
Cooper said the Anaheim proposal would be “helpful to police agencies in that some of that money would undoubtedly go for more police services.”
Fullerton City Atty. R. Kerry Fox said that if the Anaheim ordinance ultimately is upheld in court, his city would be “very interested in the possibility” of adopting a similar one.
But many legal experts say the ordinance raises basic constitutional questions about the city’s jurisdiction to seek civil penalties if someone is acquitted of criminal charges.
For example, a 1985 state law specifically authorizes cities to attempt to recover costs from drunk driving suspects and sets a $1,000 limit.
“There are state statutes for dealing with how complaints are handled, who has the responsibility for investigating and the ability to punish wrongdoers,” said state Assistant Atty. Gen. N. Eugene Hill. “There is a question of whether the ordinance would be inappropriate because of the breadth of the legislation.”
Legal experts also question whether an individual should be made to bear the costs of services that are supposed to benefit society in general.
“We have operated under a fundamental concept in criminal law that we are seeking punishment of a public wrong and those costs should be borne by society and that, on the other hand, civil penalties involve private redress,” Hill said.