Holiday brings out bad check writers

Published 6:00 am Saturday, December 13, 2003

The holiday season is a time of joy, but it is also a time ofgreat pressure on many parents who put themselves at risk to ensurea good Christmas for their families.

That pressure often tempts many to write bad checks, said JudyBullock, who heads up the Bad Check Unit of the 14th Circuit CourtDistrict District Attorney’s Office.

“It’s the worst time of year for bad checks,” she said.”Everyone wants to get something under the Christmas tree, whetherthey can afford it or not.”

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In a normal month, Bullock said, the DA’s office will receiveabout 450 bad checks from throughout the district. That numbertypically skyrockets to more than 800 per month in January andFebruary when the holiday checks begin streaming in.

District Attorney Danny Smith said many of those who write badchecks may intend to pay eventually but use the bad check as acredit extension.

“It’s a good example of how we’ve become a living-on-creditculture,” he said. “If they don’t have the credit to get a loan,they write bad checks.”

It’s not a good idea, he said.

“I would encourage people not to be tempted to use a check as ameans of obtaining credit,” he said. “It can have seriousconsequences to the check writer and their family. Crimes don’tjust affect the victim and the offender. It also affects thefamilies who have to live through those decisions.”

Bad checks are not a cheap way to obtain credit, he said. Asidefrom the criminal penalties, offenders can expect an additional $70in bad check fees and court costs added to the base amount on thecheck.

“Bad checks are a crime,” he said. “The merchants don’t see anydifference in someone taking something off the shelf and someonewriting a bad check. Neither do I.”

Criminal penalties for bad checks range from up to six months inprison in Justice Court or up to three years in prison in CircuitCourt for a misdemeanor check amount.

Most bad check writers, however, plead guilty before trial bymaking arrangements with the DA’s office, he said.

It’s the infamous carrot and the stick tactic, Bullock said.Offenders can either plead guilty and in return go to therestitution center to repay their victims, or they can go to trialand risk prison.

Most offenders choose the carrot, Bullock said.

“We rarely have a bad check case go to trial,” she said. “A lotof them have arrest warrants issued, but then they’ll makearrangements to pay off the check.”

The DA’s office actually prefers offenders to take the carrot,Bullock said.

“Our main interest is getting the victims paid,” she said.

Smith agreed. “It’s not our desire to make criminals out ofcheck writers, but we have an obligation to uphold the law and seekjustice for the victims. Ultimately, what we seek is restitution tothe victim,” he said.

Last year alone, the DA’s office collected more than $500,000 inrestitution to victims, Bullock said.

During Smith’s administration and that of his predecessor, DunnLampton, “this office has collected millions of dollars inrestitution and sent many bad check writers to the restitutioncenter or even prison,” he said.

The pursuit and conviction of bad check writers accounts for alot of the DA’s offices cases, Smith said, and he would like to seethe number of those cases diminish.

“We would much rather be spending our time prosecuting rapists,robbers and murderers than in pursuing bad check writers, but we’remandated to handle these cases and it is a serious offense,” hesaid.