Watch your mail — you may be a winner!

January 28, 2014

The deluge of catalogs that descends on us at Christmas is second only to the one with end of the year / first of the year catalogs. In addition, various individuals and companies are clamoring that, if we will only do the paperwork, we are assured to win a sweepstakes that will solve all our problems. It is enough to make one not check the mail, which can be extremely dangerous.
Many years ago, the County Attorney’s Office started working with merchants to collect bad checks. Part of the process involves sending a letter from the office to the check writer, offering the opportunity to pay the check. Our letterhead at that time was white. When the complaints started coming in that the recipient did not receive or notice our letter. In an effort to be more noticeable (but no less professional) we switched to an ivory letterhead and envelope. Amazingly, we still receive the same complaints today.
The holidays are a prime time for the writing of bad checks. In fact, the epidemic becomes so bad that some merchants who normally accept checks will not do so during this time, or require extra identifying information at that time. In the search for the “perfect gift”, many people visit craft fairs, “trade days” and flea markets. Their checks may be written somewhere other than their county of residence, broadening the scope of the problem about to hit.
As a rule, people who write bad checks are at least somewhat disorganized. While they may believe that they can carry their balance mentally, many have never actually balanced a checkbook. They actually are not aware of the balance of their checking account, nor of the fact that it is overdrawn. They are probably not even aware that the address on their checks is no longer accurate, which will exacerbate the problem.
Once all the hot checks are returned to the merchant, most proceed to send letters (they need no longer be certified) to the check writers requiring that restitution be paid within a matter of days. State law allows merchants to add a fee to the face value of the check, and most will do so. The letter will be sent to the writer at the address on the check. If that address is no longer correct, the merchant has no duty to search for another one. In most cases, the mail is not forwarded, but returned to the sender as undeliverable. If the check writer fails to respond to the letter, or fails to pay the amount requested, the merchant can, and normally will, turn the check over for prosecution.
It is quite common for people arrested for writing bad checks to complain that they have not been given notice. As a courtesy, most prosecutors will send either a letter (by first class mail) or a post card to the check writer informing them that they have ten days to take care of the check or face criminal charges. (This notice will also give notice of the additional fee imposed by the prosecutor’s office for collecting the check. Now the writer is looking at the face value + $30 + at least $15!) These notices are sent to the address on the check, because that is normally the only one available. If the writer is in the prosecutor's database already (not a good sign!), a more current address may be found and used. As long as the address is one that has been correct in the past, the check writer is considered to have been given notice.
In most circumstances, check writers are given notice that their check was dishonored by their banking institution. When balancing an account, it is not uncommon to be missing a check, but there should be an increased service charge for having had a "bounce". Sadly, many of the people arrested on warrants for bad checks have been "missing" an accounting for the particular check for several months. The fact that the check was missing in that many bank statements should be a red flag.
It is also quite common for a now former spouse to receive the blame for the dishonored check. Invariably, he or she has refused to forward mail, to release information about the account, or cleaned it out before the accused was aware of the action. There are few couples who manage to split their assets without at least some rancor. Perhaps the wisest course, when faced with a split between two account holders, is for at least one to visit the bank and remove himself /herself from the account. At the very least, if continuing to write checks but not seeing the bank statement, take the time to check with the bank on a regular basis to insure that the balance is positive.
Most prosecutors across the state are willing to work with check writers who will contact them prior to a warrant being issued. Once an order for arrest has been issued, their patience tends to be considerably shorter. Sadly, it is not uncommon for one check writer to be the subject of warrants in three or four counties. While the prosecutors may be willing to consolidate the cases, there is no requirement that they do so. As a result, a check writer living in Nolan County will probably have a warrant from the here; if they shop in Abilene, there will be a warrant from there, as writing a bad check is a crime, and crimes must be prosecuted in the county where they took place. If the person stopped at a craft fair or trade day in the metroplex, there may also be a warrant from Dallas or Tarrant County.
So far, the "record holder" in our office was an individual facing theft by check warrants from ten counties. Even though the cases were eventually consolidated for the purpose of collecting restitution, she was required to post bond on each of those cases. The lowest bond was $500, and I believe that the total she gave the bondsman was $ 1500. From there, she had to take the time off work to appear in each of the courts on these matters, traveling about the state to the various "scenes of the crime." With the aid of an attorney who was court appointed from here, all the cases were rolled together into one conviction through the Nolan County Court At Law. She was given a fine, had to pay court costs, and full restitution on the checks from the other counties as well as the ones here. She was placed on Community Supervision (probation) for a period of time at $40 per month, over 100 hours of community service, monthly reports and all the other requirements placed on any other person.
Most people convicted of theft by check are individuals normally believed to be "criminals", yet their conduct has caused them to develop a criminal record for a crime of moral turpitude. Of all the misdemeanors in the law books, this is one of the most avoidable - just by checking the mail.

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to editor@sweetwater-reporter.com.

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