Next week will be the annual Sales Tax Holiday. Papers will be full of ads; stores Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be filled with shoppers taking advantage of not only sales, but the unusual opportunity to pay only the sum of the listed price of items purchased (on certain goods). Unfortunately, this seems to lead to many people forgetting the balance in their checking account, and the length of time until payday!
There are “seasons” in the writing of bad checks. Not surprisingly, several surface with dates between Thanksgiving and Christmas; there is often another spate around spring break. There has always been an increase in August as families gather school supplies, but the creation of a “sales tax holiday” has made it much worse.
Most people who have a checking account have made an error at one time or another. Sometimes it was the result of poor (or distracted!) subtraction, failure to include a bank fee for the maintenance of the account or the purchase of checks, other times it was a consequence of forgetting to record a check. With the most individuals, the first notice from the bank or merchant is sufficient to have them racing to the business office of the check’s recipient with both cash and apologies. Those who allow matters to progress to the merchant writing a letter are – hopefully – in the minority.
Quite a few of the hot checks written in the county eventually appear in the County Attorney’s Office. They are turned in by the merchant who accepted them, normally with a copy of the letter that was sent. Had the check writer accepted the letter and paid the face value of the check and the merchant fee, there would be no further proceedings. Once the matter is turned over to this office, however, it can become criminal quickly.
As a courtesy, the County Attorney’s office sends a first class letter to the check writer at the address on the check. For whatever reason, many people choose not to accept delivery of certified letters, so it is hoped that this one reaches them. By responding to it, and picking up the check, there is one last opportunity to avoid being arrested. At this point, another fee has been added, the hot check collection fee, raising the total owed by at least $15. Neither the merchant nor the County Attorney’s Office are required to search for the check writer. The notices are sent to the address on the check, and it is the responsibility of the account holder to insure that the address is correct. Failure to receive properly addressed notices is not a defense to the criminal case. These letters are not the only notice received by the account holder – by the point the process has gone this far, there have been at least two bank statements sent out that should not have balanced – and that should reflect a bounced check service fee.
Ten days after the letter has been sent out by the County Attorney’s Office, the matter is ripe for the filing of a criminal case. Writing a bad check is theft, and that is the charge that is filed. A warrant for the arrest of the writer is prepared and signed, then entered into the statewide computer database by the Sheriff’s Office. Once that has been done, the waiting begins. Many people are well enough known by local law enforcement that they are brought in quickly. Others may not live here, or have moved to another part of the state since writing the check. When stopped for a traffic offense, renewing a license, or applying for certain jobs, the warrant will surface and the writer will have a trip to the local jail.
There are some offenses for which an individual cannot make bond; writing checks is not one of them. Most people bond out relatively soon after being arrested by paying a fee to a bondsman. The bondsman guarantees that the defendant will appear in court on the date and at the time required. Should the defendant (check writer) not appear, the bondsman may be required to pay the amount of the bond (not his fee) to the court. Once the case has been disposed of, the bond is “released”, that is, the bondsman is no longer responsible for the person he released from jail. This does not mean that the bond fee is reimbursed. That is the fee that was paid for the privilege of being free until the case goes to court.
Most check cases in Nolan County are filed as Class B misdemeanors; meaning that the fine can be as high as $2000 and up to six months incarceration can be assessed. As a practical matter, most people are given probation and the opportunity to continue on with their lives.
The signs on the highway say “DWI, you can’t afford it”; the same is true for writing bad checks. A $21 check picks up a $25 merchant fee, $15 collection fee for a total of $61 if paid before the warrant is issued. If it goes to court, the costs (which are set by the legislature) are $294, the fine normally assessed is $400 and probation fees are $40 per month, normally for a year. Not counting bond fees and attorney fees (if one is desired) the cost of the $21 check is $1234.00. Whatever savings might have been realized by shopping the “sales tax holiday” have been devoured by the court system.
The savings available in the coming weekend can surely mount up, especially for those who have several children to outfit for school. However, the costs and fines associated with bad checks will easily cost more than the realized savings! Enjoy the weekend, but remember – you CAN run out of money before you run out of checks!
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .