Real estate agent accused of hiking property rent in wake of wildfires
San Rafael, CA – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed three misdemeanor charges against Melissa “Missy” Echeverria, a real estate agent, for allegedly raising the monthly rent on property she owns in Novato by more than 10 percent following the devastating fires in the North Bay counties last year.
Due to the blazes, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on October 9, 2017, and the County of Marin opened a temporary shelter for fleeing fire victims. Price gouging during a state of emergency is illegal under Penal Code Section 396.
“In times of crisis, the overwhelming majority of Californians do what is right: We come together and help one another,” Becerra said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are some unscrupulous individuals who engage in price gouging, taking advantage of those who are already suffering. It’s wrong, it’s unconscionable, and it’s illegal.
“At the California Department of Justice, we are committed to ensuring that it’s not open season on innocent victims. I appreciate the strong partnership between my office and the Marin County District Attorney’s Office in this particular case.”
The Marin DA staff joined the Attorney General’s statewide task force on price gouging in November 2017. The Attorney General’s Office consulted with Marin DA staff before the latter filed the case against Echeverria on the state’s behalf. Marin personnel will assist the state staff as necessary as the case moves forward.
Marin DA Ed Berberian added, “We want those who suffered these devastating losses to know that we will do what we can to assure there will no Marin County-based individuals or businesses engaging in these price gouging practices.”
This is the first Marin-related criminal action filed in the wake of the North Bay fires. The DA’s Office has received other similar price gouging complaints that are in various stages of investigation or review.
The Echeverria investigation was conducted by attorneys and Division of Law Enforcement special agents from the California Department of Justice. California law generally prohibits hiking the price of an item or service by more than 10 percent of what it cost before a state or local emergency was declared. The law applies to those who sell food, emergency supplies, medical supplies, building materials and gasoline. The law also applies to repair or reconstruction services, emergency cleanup services, transportation, freight and storage services, hotel accommodations and rental housing. Exceptions to this prohibition exist if, for example, the price of labor, goods, or materials has increased for the vendor.
Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in one-year imprisonment in a county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution. The Attorney General and local district attorneys can enforce the statute.
Becerra’s office said a criminal complaint contains charges that are only allegations against a person, and every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
In Sonoma County, the DA’s Office received more 200 price gouging complaints in the wake of the fires, and prosecutors there have filed four cases.
Earlier this year, Becerra and Director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Mark Ghilarducci released a public service announcement, “Price Gouging is Not Only Wrong, It’s Illegal.” The PSA encourages members of the public to be vigilant against any illegal price gouging in the wake of natural disasters that have affected thousands of Californians.
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