In the wake of the wildfires, the Consumer/Environmental Protection Unit (“CEPU”) of the Napa County District Attorney’s Office put out several press releases regarding price gouging, fraudulent schemes, and other consumer-related information to guide and advise Napa County residents.
In response to those press releases, our office received questions from the community regarding the CEPU. In our ongoing effort to inform all residents about the services provided by the Napa County District Attorney’s Office, we answer some of those questions here:
What is the CEPU? The CEPU prosecutes unlawful business practices as well as environmental crimes. Our cases cover a wide range of unlawful conduct, including false advertising, overcharging, workplace safety violations, the marketing and sale of unapproved over-the-counter drugs, the generation, disposal, and transport of hazardous waste, and water pollution.
How is the CEPU staffed? The CEPU is staffed by two full-time attorneys, one part-time attorney, a paralegal, a legal secretary and a specially trained investigator. The CEPU staff have training and experience handling consumer and environmental protection cases, and the majority of their workload comes from such cases.
Why is the CEPU part of the DA’s office? Most people associate the District Attorney’s Office with the prosecution of criminal activity such as murder, sexual assault, theft, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But under California law, the DA’s office is also responsible for investigating and prosecuting fraudulent, deceptive, and/or unlawful business activity that victimizes Napa County residents, as well as misconduct that threatens Napa County’s environment and natural resources. We also work with the attorney general and district attorneys in other counties to prosecute unlawful business activity and environmental misconduct statewide. Our goal is not only to protect consumers and the environment, but to ensure a level playing field for companies that comply with the law.
What is the punishment in consumer or environmental protection cases? Unlike most cases prosecuted by the DA’s office, the CEPU generally prosecutes cases in civil court rather than criminal court. That means we seek to punish unlawful conduct not through jail time, but through monetary penalties and a court-ordered injunction prohibiting the defendant from engaging in the unlawful conduct. However, we may still proceed with a criminal case against a defendant if warranted under the circumstances. Whether we file a civil or criminal case, we seek restitution for victims whenever possible.
If I submit a consumer complaint, does the CEPU file a case on my behalf? If you believe you are the victim of an unlawful business practice, we encourage you to submit a consumer complaint to our office. However, we cannot act as your attorney or give you legal advice. In consumer and environmental cases, just as in criminal cases, the DA’s office represents the People of the State of California, not individuals. Our cases commonly involve a pattern of unlawful activity. While consumer complaints are instrumental in establishing such a pattern, we do not file a case for every complaint. In appropriate cases, we may attempt to informally resolve disputes between consumers and businesses.
What else does CEPU do? In an effort to prevent consumer fraud before it occurs, the CEPU alerts Napa County residents to ongoing scams. We also provide information to consumers regarding agencies that may be better able to assist with investigating their complaint (such as the Bureau of Automotive Repairs, the Department of Insurance, or the Contractors State Licensing Board.)
How can Napa County residents contact the CEPU? Consumers can reach the CEPU by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (707) 253-4059. On our website at countyofnapa.org/578/Consumer-Environmental, consumers can file a complaint, find information about scams, and find links to other consumer and environmental protection agencies.
Allison Haley is the Napa County District Attorney. Patrick Collins is Deputy District Attorney.
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