The Kenwood Press
News: 04/15/2018

Price gouging leads to few prosecutions

Jay Gamel

Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t relate a tale of encountering exorbitant rents, and high prices for materials and labor.

One of the first things California’s Attorney General and Sonoma’s District Attorney told people following the October firestorms was that they would take price gouging very seriously.

Once the Governor declared a State of Emergency, California Penal Code §396 became effective. Under this law, price gouging, or charging a price that exceeds, by more than 10 percent, the price of an item before a state or local declaration of emergency, is illegal.

This law has been on the books since 1892 and invoking it is a rite of passage for elected officials in every emergency.

The extraordinary legal protections of §396 will expire on April 18 unless the State of Emergency is extended by the Governor once again, which does not seem likely.

Xavier Becerra, the State Attorney General, has an online web page for consumers to file complaints at oag.ca.gov/contact/consumer-complaint-against-business-or-company. Filling out the form and filing are fairly painless. Those without computers will have to do it through the Post Office, but the system is in place for making complaints.

Closer to home, Sonoma County’s District Attorney’s office has a similar and even more thorough online resource for disgruntled consumers on their web page, also with a direct link to file the form at da.sonoma-county.org. Look for the Price Gouging section in the list on the left side of the page. You can call the Sonoma County hotline at 565-5317 to start the process.

“We have received 227 complaints,” Sonoma District Attorney Jill Ravich said. “We have investigated 98 of them. Many of the complaints we receive do not fit the criteria for prosecution for PC §396.” Of those that do, four criminal cases have been filed: two have been resolved and two are pending in criminal court. Ravich said there are 10 more cases under active investigation for a possible criminal prosecution.

The DA’s office is actively investigating five cases for civil prosecution for unfair business practices, the DA added.

One of the resolved matters resulted in a tenant being reinstated with a 12-month lease at the old rate and compensation for their costs.

It’s not clear just what the State Attorney General’s office has been doing. According to the press office that responded to questions about how many complaints have been received, investigated and dealt with in some manner, the office response was as follows:

“Since taking office, Attorney General Becerra has made protecting consumers a top priority. To that end, following the widespread fires late last year, he reminded Californians that price gouging during a state of emergency is illegal under Penal Code Section 396.

“To protect its integrity, we can’t comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation, but we are committed to holding accountable fraudsters who prey upon innocent victims. The majority of misdemeanor criminal prosecutions have been brought by district and city attorneys. We therefore urge you to contact those offices.

“Finally, the business complaint form does, in fact, apply to landlords who violate the law. Individuals who are victims of price gouging, including price gouging by landlords, should report via that form at oag.ca.gov/report.”

The form at that website is a generic complaint form and does not fall under the auspices of PC § 396.