Anne Arundel County's prosecutor to crack down on bad-check writers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne Arundel County Councilman Tom Redmond remembers the phone conversation fairly well.

He was trying to get a customer of his Pasadena auto parts business to pay up on a $15 bad check. The man laughed at him. "He said, 'You're not going to court over a $15 check,' " Mr. Redmond recalled.

The customer was wrong.

With the help of the Anne Arundel County state's attorney, the man was charged in District Court with writing a bad check and later held in contempt of court when he ignored a summons. The man eventually spent a weekend in the Anne Arundel County jail.

"It was probably a long time before that guy ever wrote another bad check," said Mr. Redmond.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee is hoping for similar success stories when he restarts the office's bad-check unit in September. The unit was discontinued three years ago.

Mr. Weathersbee plans to hire a law clerk and a secretary. This time around, the unit will collect a fee from victims who use the service. Merchants say they wouldn't mind paying a fee, as long as it helps them get their money.

"A business can send out certified letters asking for payment, and people ignore them. But when you get a letter from the state's attorney, people take notice," said Mr. Redmond.

Mr. Weathersbee said he expects the program to cost $51,720 in salaries, benefits and office equipment. It could take in about $200,000 a year from bad-check scofflaws and about $20,000 in service fees from their victims, he said. The money will go into the county general fund.

"It's really not much different than what we've done in years past, but the big difference is we'll collect a little money for the county while we're doing it," Mr. Weathersbee said.

The amount of the "user fee" is still undetermined but could be based on a percentage of the check or be set at a flat rate.

For the fee, the state's attorney will post a letter informing bad-check writers that they will be charged criminally if they fail to pay up. In the past, between one-third and one-half of those contacted have paid after receiving such letters, Mr. Weathersbee said.

If the person refuses, charges will be filed in either Glen Burnie or Annapolis District Court, he said.

The state's attorney started a similar bad-check program in 1978 when the General Assembly rewrote the state's theft statutes to make it easier to prosecute bad-check cases, Mr. Weathersbee said.

The program was revamped in the mid-1980s and killed in 1992, a victim of a series of budget cuts instituted by former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall.

Since 1992, the state's attorney has responded to complaints about bad checks involving small amounts by writing scofflaws and threatening them with charges if they failed to pay. In most cases, the letters were not followed up and those holding bad checks were left to file charges on their own in District Court.

"That could be a hassle because of having somebody go over to the court, do all the paperwork, spend all the time there and then you'd have the [defendant] not show up in court," said Craig A. Snoops, manager of the Lauer's Super Thrift supermarket in Pasadena.

Private collection agencies say they have no problem with the state's attorney performing a service traditionally left to them.

"It really shouldn't hurt us very much," said Thomas Madden, owner of National Credit System Inc. in Severna Park.

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