Bad checks keep courts busy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 24, 2001

Albert Lea businesses handle a lot of checks from customers, but they can count on a certain number of them being bogus, officials say.

Thursday, May 24, 2001

Albert Lea businesses handle a lot of checks from customers, but they can count on a certain number of them being bogus, officials say.

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Check crimes are common in Albert Lea, said Albert Lea Police Assistant Chief Dwaine Winkels. Crimes include writing checks on closed accounts, or accounts with insufficient funds and forgeries. By far the most common type of check crime is writing checks on accounts with insufficient funds – bouncing checks, Winkels said.

&uot;The crime is writing the check knowing that at the time the check is written, there is no money in that account,&uot; he said.

Albert Lea City Attorney Steve Schwab prosecutes all charges of misdemeanor bad checks in the city. He processed 443 misdemeanor bad check complaints last year.

&uot;By sheer volume, it’s the largest single kind of complaint that I do,&uot; Schwab said. &uot;I do more of these than DUIs, assaults, and thefts put together.&uot;

Schwab estimates about 75 percent of those prosecuted criminally eventually pay off the checks.

Once charges are brought, Schwab doesn’t dismiss them just because the check is paid. People have plenty of chances to pay the check off before it gets to that point, he said. Most of the checks he receives as evidence were passed months before, and the people who wrote them had several warnings before they were prosecuted.

&uot;The people have had plenty of time to make restitution if they were going to do it,&uot; Schwab said. &uot;Paying the check is not going to get them out of court.&uot;

Writing bad checks totaling less than $250 in a six-month period is a misdemeanor. $250 to $500 is a gross misdemeanor, and anything over $500 is a felony, Schwab said.

It is not unheard of for Schwab to dismiss a misdemeanor case and forward the file to the Freeborn County Attorney’s office for felony prosecution.

&uot;The bulk of the cases, once they write one bad check, they seem to write more,&uot; he said.

The penalty for misdemeanor check crimes is a standard $135 fine with statutory costs and restitution for the amount of the checks bounced, Schwab said.

&uot;That’s the sad thing about this, is the people that are writing bad checks really can’t afford the $135,&uot; he said.

Most people bounce checks because they overextend themselves, then find they can’t cover their expenditures, Schwab said.

&uot;Surprisingly, bad checks aren’t written for huge amounts,&uot; Winkels said. &uot;Mostly they’re just small purchases, like at convenience stores, or for supplies from one of the large department stores … They run out of money, but they maintain their lifestyle.&uot;

More bad checks pass through Wal-Mart than any other Albert Lea business, Schwab said.

Wal-Mart sees all kinds of bad checks, but the most common type is bounced checks, said Store Manager Brent Keller. Wal-Mart tries to get the money back through phone conversations with offenders, certified mail notices of non-payment, and eventually through the city attorney.

While some stores may be hurt more by smaller losses, everyone feels the bite of bad checks, he said.

&uot;I think it’s an issue for any business because it’s lost profit,&uot; Keller said.

Schwab couldn’t estimate the monetary impact of bad check writing on Albert Lea businesses.

&uot;Just the ones I prosecute total probably $40,000 to $50,000 of loss for businesses in a year,&uot; Schwab said.

But not all businesses seek criminal prosecution, he said. Some file civil suits against check bouncers, or use check services that validate accounts or collection agencies to recoup their losses. Some businesses decide the small return won’t pay for the amount of work it would take to clear a check, and they let the crime go.

&uot;I think some of them just write off the bad checks, especially if it’s for a small amount like $20 or $30,&uot; he said.