The Dallas Observer published a feature this week on folks who inadvertently bounce a check, which isn't illegal, and find themselves faced with threats of prosecution.
From the Observer:
Julie Orr wrote a check for $91 at an Albertson's grocery store. A few days later, while reviewing her bank account, she noticed that the check had bounced. Orr headed back to Albertson's to make good on her payment. But she was told that the store had already placed her in collections….
A month later, Orr received a letter from the district attorney's office. It inexplicably accused her of intent to commit fraud, noting that she was now eligible for "up to one year in the county jail." The only way to avoid criminal charges: participate in the county's "voluntary" bad-check restitution program.
But the DA wanted more than Albertson's $91 back. Though California law restricts the penalty on bad checks to $25, the letter demanded $333.51, which included $175 for a "voluntary" financial-accountability class she'd have to take.
Orr called the 1-800 number in the letter, but, instead of the DA, she reached:
Corrective Solutions, a private company from San Clemente. According to its website, it handles bad-check cases for 140 district attorneys nationwide—jurisdictions that oversee 65 million people, from Colorado to Florida, Michigan to Washington.
…Instead of investigating bad-check complaints, prosecutors simply pass them along to Corrective Solutions. The company then uses official DA letterhead to threaten jail time if consumers don't pay up. Corrective Solutions also runs the "voluntary" financial-accountability classes, and prosecutors get a cut of the profits while barely lifting a finger.
Unfortunately, the entire system runs on a one-size-fits-all presumption of guilt. No one's bothering to investigate whether the check writer was working a scam or merely suffering from a momentary lapse of mathematics.
Read the whole thing here. One bone to pick: the Observer rightly excoriates the private companies involved, but then gives prosecutors a pass because DAs are, according to DAs, underfunded; they simply don't have the resources to investigate each case. This scam doesn't work, however, without the threat of government force. Prosecutors are renting that out, exposing thousands of innocent people to coercive threats.
Rather than being underfunded, DAs are overstretched. There would be much more room in the budget for prosecuting check fraud and other serious crimes if the government would stop focusing on victimless crimes.