When the Anaheim City Council last Tuesday unanimously gave its preliminary approval to a harebrained ordinance that would allow the city to bill people accused of crimes for the costs of the police investigations--even if the person is innocent of any wrongdoing--no one said a word. There was no council discussion. And no one rose to speak about it, for or against.
The approach, however, is so patently unfair, greedy and constitutionally questionable that it has raised considerable criticism from legal experts.
Some cities looking for new ways to raise revenues by recovering police-service costs traditionally paid by taxpayers have passed laws enabling them to recover costs from drunk-driving suspects. Others, like Newport Beach and Santa Ana, have ordinances allowing them to recover police costs for responding to loud party complaints.
But no city has dared go as far as Anaheim did last Tuesday when it gave its initial approval to holding people accused of a crime responsible for police investigative costs--even if no charges are ever filed, if charges are filed and dismissed, or if the person is ultimately acquitted of any wrongdoing.
That is carrying the city’s pursuit of revenue to a dangerous extreme. Other cities, like neighboring Fullerton, have already expressed an interest in adopting a similar ordinance, if Anaheim’s passes legal muster.
Some attorneys and legal scholars do not think that the ordinance could survive a legal challenge. They raise valid concerns about the constitutionality of seeking civil restitution from someone acquitted of criminal charges and whether individuals can be forced to pay for police services that benefit society and should be borne by the community.
But even if Anaheim’s approach were legal, it still wouldn’t be right. Requiring innocent people to pay for investigations will not help deter crime, as the city attorney has contended. But it could cause serious financial strain on or even bankrupt some families.
The city attorney and the police chief have tried to soften the concern by explaining that although the law technically applies to everyone apprehended, it will be used selectively. But that kind of selective application makes the law even more worrisome and potentially unfair.
The criticism has caused some council members to have second thoughts about their hasty approval. Innocent people shouldn’t be charged to investigate alleged crimes they didn’t commit.
The ordinance to bill the accused is scheduled to be back before the council Tuesday for final adoption. The proper council action should be final rejection.