The story appeared on page one of the Sunday New York Times, and there was an immediate, and overwhelmingly appropriate, wave of outrage. Debt collectors bought the use of letterhead from District Attorneys to scare and threaten people into giving them money.
When a debt collector in Erie, Pennsylvania tried to fake a courtroom to get its victims to fork over money, the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Affairs shut it down. How outrageous that they issued phony subpoenas, erected a phony courtroom, put a phony judge on the bench who ordered very real people to pay money. How outrageous that they didn’t give the state it’s piece.
The solution wasn’t to stop lying, but to share the profits.
The letters are sent by the thousands to people across the country who have written bad checks, threatening them with jail if they do not pay up.
They bear the seal and signature of the local district attorney’s office. But there is a catch: the letters are from debt-collection companies, which the prosecutors allow to use their letterhead. In return, the companies try to collect not only the unpaid check, but also high fees from debtors for a class on budgeting and financial responsibility, some of which goes back to the district attorneys’ offices.
According to the article, there are now about 300 prosecutors’ offices in on the scam. The scam not only seeks money for purportedly bad checks, but fees and costs, and then an additional amount for a “class” in “financial accountability.” The district attorney’s letters suggest that the recipient either take the class or pack their toothbrush. Or else.
As outrageous as it may be the debt collectors are doing this, it’s the best thing that’s ever come their way. The force of the law for only a few dollars per claim? What a deal! It gives these outfits the clout they need, now that the fair debt collection act prohibits them from doing things the way they use to, harassing people in the middle of the night, at their jobs, threatening their children and constant screaming, cursing and lies. Not that these things still don’t happen, but they’re not supposed to.
Debt collection was the lowest of the low, the scum on the bottom of your shoe. This is who District Attorneys decided to get into bed with. There’s no need to draw the obvious inference. Why would they do this, lock arms with the very people they used to go after for flagrant impropriety?
Clearly, it’s just money. A new revenue stream presented itself, and government always loves a new revenue stream, especially when it involves taking money from powerless people for whom there is no love or advocates. As much as no one loves debt collectors, no one loves check bouncers either. No need to raise taxes when there are bad guys from whom they can glom a few quid.
Yet, there’s a huge, gaping hole in the concept. No one from any district attorney’s office, no one who might conceivably be accountable, has anything whatsoever to do with the use or abuse of the office. No one investigates whether the claim of a bad check is legitimate. No one considers whether anything remotely resembling criminal conduct occurred. And no one seems to give a damn that these debt collectors, yesterday’s scum of the earth and today’s prosecutorial bedfellows, are using official fiat to scam an extra couple of hundred bucks out of their victims so they can spread the vig around.
And what do our revered prosecutors have to say about this? Remember, these are the people who enjoy the caveat whenever they’re caught dirty that they would (almost) never act in bad faith, never deliberately undermine the Constitution, never intentionally put an innocent in prison. So how do they rationalize this outrage?
Prosecutors say that the partnerships allow them to focus on more serious crimes, and that the letters are sent only to check writers who ignore merchants’ demands for payment. The district attorneys receive a payment from the firms or a small part of the fees collected.
The influx of bad-check reports overwhelmed district attorneys’ offices, according to Grover C. Trask, a former district attorney in Riverside, Calif., considered the father of such programs. “It was a way to deal with a fairly serious nonviolent crime going on in the business community, but not overburden the court system or the resources of the district attorneys,” Mr. Trask said.
After all, who would want to “overburden the court system or the resources of district attorneys” by expecting them to do their jobs? Who would want courts and prosecutors to afford citizens due process? Instead, let’s defer to the excellent judgment and trustworthiness of businesses and debt collectors. They would never lie. They would never get it wrong.
Prosecutors point out that people who write bad checks should be held accountable for paying back what they owe.
“I view it as quite a win-win,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. “You aren’t criminalizing someone who shouldn’t have a criminal record, and you are getting the merchant his money back.”
Check bouncers should be held accountable. But only in a way that the law provides, after the people in whom we repose trust and responsibility ascertain that a crime has been committed, and after the accused has been afforded the opportunity of a full and fair hearing before a neutral magistrate. Whether the merchants deserve to get money back or not is the end result, not the starting point. It’s a burden to do things right? ‘Tough nuggies. That’s why they pay you the big bucks.
Yet our prosecutors, the ones who we trust to safeguard our rights and exercise discretion in a fashion that protects our rights, with ten thousand court decisions affirming their honor and integrity, have handed a gun to debt collectors and told them to fire at will. The only condition is giving the District Attorneys a cut of the money stolen.
It makes me pine for the days of the mob at its best. At least they understood that what they were doing was terribly, outrageously wrong.