For many local governments, the answer is yes. You’ve seen the signs in retail stores warning that you can be responsible for triple the amount if your check bounces. Often the signs also include warnings that bouncing a check is a misdemeanor and that the retailer intends to prosecute. Most of us have bounced a check at one time or another and then worried about what might happen. If you get a letter that purports to be from the District Attorney threatening prosecution, it may not be what it looks like.
These days most district attorneys, including Contra Costa County, are short-staffed and have little or no resources to prosecute bounced checks. Bounced checks are, at most, a low-level crime that does not merit jail time except in the most extreme cases. Bounced checks are so common and the resources to prosecute so limited that many district attorneys have delegated the pursuit of bounced checks to private collection agencies. This idea is easily accepted because it can also function as a moneymaker for local government. What has developed are “diversion” programs whereby a person can avoid prosecution by paying for and completing a course on financial management. These diversion programs are often run by private companies, but a portion of the fee charged for the course is paid to the local government. In fact, Contra Costa County has a “Bad check diversion program” that allows the check writer to pay the check and complete a course to avoid prosecution. The County’s website goes on to explain that the program is at no cost to the taxpayer.
In 2012 the New York Times published an article detailing a troubling trend where local district attorneys allow debt collectors to use the district attorney’s letterhead to threaten criminal prosecution when a debt involves an unpaid check. Since that article, legal ethics opinions have decried the practice as unethical, yet it continues in many places. This practice is especially problematic because of the number of scams where imposters claim to be law enforcement. Their purpose is to extract money whether or not anything is actually owed. Right here in Pleasanton, California, the Federal Trade Commission busted a scam where fake cops collected fake debts. Anyone with questions should review the Federal Trade Commission’s Fake Debt Collectors scam alert.
At the Law Office of Michael Primus we have helped hundreds of clients get out of debt, stop wage garnishments, and start fresh through bankruptcy. If you live in Contra Costa County and have debt problems, contact us for a free in-office consultation. We have offices in Walnut Creek, Antioch and Hercules.