Privatizing the District Attorney?

Respectfully submitted by Lawrence Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

I have to admit that I do not shock too easily.  However, when I read an article this morning in the New York Times, I was taken back by the news.  It seems that private debt collection companies across the United States have partnered with District Attorneys offices, to use the threat of criminal charges being filed against consumers in attempts to collect on alleged bounced checks to merchants.  The fact that people were being threatened by collection companies did not surprise me.  It was the fact that the veiled threats to the consumers were sent on District Attorney or Prosecutor letterhead that amazed me! 

“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.”  New York Times 

Maybe I am just naive, but does it make sense for the DA’s office to outsource the job of investigating and prosecuting alleged perpetrators of bounced checks to private companies who may or may not actually investigate the bounced check circumstances before “official” threats of criminal prosecution are sent out?  Prosecutors involved in these arrangements claim that the process saves taxpayer money and saves time in their office.

“Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail. What makes this approach unusual is that the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.  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 companies are returning thousands of dollars to merchants that is not coming at taxpayer expense,” said Ken Ryken, deputy district attorney with Alameda County.”  New York Times

These private collection companies are requiring people to pay the money owed on the bounced check, along with an administrative fee and in many cases an expensive budgeting class.  All under the cover of the official letterhead of the partnering District Attorney or State’s Attorney’s office.  I can understand merchants looking for creative ways to recoup the losses they suffer from bounced checks, but attorneys representing consumers see the issue differently from the collection companies.

“Consumer lawyers have challenged the debt collectors in courts across the United States, claiming that they lack the authority to threaten prosecution or to ask for fees for classes when no district attorney has reviewed the facts of the cases. The district attorneys are essentially renting out their stationery, the lawyers say, allowing the companies to give the impression that failure to respond could lead to charges, when it rarely does.  “This is guilty until proven innocent,” said Paul Arons, a consumer lawyer in Friday Harbor, Wash., about two hours north of Seattle.” New York Times

Are these “partnerships” between debt collection companies and District Attorney offices another example of the privatization of government duties?  Do you think that prosecutor’s letterhead should be rented out to private companies to provide them with the appearance of governmental authority?  While this type of arrangement was news to me, it isn’t a new process.  It goes back to at least 2006 when Congress passed a law allowing District Attorneys offices to make these arrangements and consumers started complaining in 2009 as shown by this couple’s statements.

“Both acknowledge they wrote two bad checks, totaling about $200, as they were moving from Florida to Michigan in late 2007. The bad checks, they say, were mistakes. But nearly a year after they settled in a Detroit suburb, letters and phone calls followed from Florida.  “They told me they were part of the attorney general’s office,” Michelle O’Neil told CNN. “And that was scary in the sense that I’ve never had any legal problems. I’m a teacher.”  But the calls weren’t coming from a state agency. They were coming from a company hired by a Florida county prosecutor’s office to collect on bounced checks.

The firm — American Corrective Counseling Services, or ACCS — splits the money it collects with the prosecutor’s office. But it also makes money from financial management courses that people who wrote the checks are required by law to attend at their own expense. And the company’s contract with the prosecutor’s office states those classes are its “principal business activity.” ‘ CNN

My kids always tell me that I am behind the times, and I guess this years old issue slipped past me for several years.  I think it may be time for Congress to take another look at the 2006 law that allows District Attorney offices to make these kind of arrangements.  When the force of law is used to extract much more than just past due monies, then it goes too far.  The governmental process of enforcing the law should never be privatized, in my opinion.  Do you think corporations can be trusted to diligently review each bounced check to insure that their threatening letters on District Attorney letterhead is being sent to people who intended to bounce a check?  What do you think?

Additional Sources:  ProPublica; Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Amazon AWS

69 thoughts on “Privatizing the District Attorney?”

  1. Feemeister, I sent a priority mail package to TX. It arrived 12 days later (after I had to copy it again and FedEx it at great expense). A couple of years later I sent a priority mail package to Maryland; it NEVER arrived and I had to pay $40 for second copies of a court file and have it hand-delivered at great expense. So I stopped using priority mail and sent a package Federal Express; it got into a snafu that cost me and the recipient a combined $60 and they wouldn’t refund my fee for next-day delivery!

    I would buy a carrier pigeon but they can’t carry the big heavy stuff.

  2. As long as we’re going after the post office here! Last September I had 3 packages come the same day; I didn’t receive ANY of them. I called and called the post office, who told me they were delivered to my box, and I insisted NONE of the 3 were there (two of these were frickin

    PRIORITY mind you). They said there was nothing they could do. I could not get any reimbursement for any of the 3; they are not liable for anything. I lost $150 because the stupid postman put them in the wrong box.

    In April, the two priority packages were put in my box. They were 8 months AFTER the date the postman had assuredly put them in MY box! While I was really glad to get my stuff, the post office is really terrible a lot of the time.

    I use UPS now and they have been wonderful for the last year. Had Fedex once, and they delivered to the wrong house. But it was a new guy and he owned up to it and they made it right (he said he left it on my porch, but I HAVE no porch)!

    The Post Office is not NEARLY as good as it used to be! And I DO have to say that them not being much more careful with Priority Mail just floored me!

  3. Elaine, There you go! Believe it or not I appreciate your last response. It was Elaine..not school teacher Elaine. You could have told me to “Go sh@t in my hat” as my mother sometimes would. I have a very thick skin. On this topic of the PO I think we can both agree..Basta!

  4. nick,

    FYI: I didn’t teach only elementary students. I also taught college juniors and seniors and graduate level students at a large university.

    I expressed my opinion about the USPS. You chose to be snarky in response to my comments. I responded in way that got under your thin skin. So…don’t sit back and chill. Do whatever you like. Get your knickers in a twist. I’m really not that interested in what you do.

  5. Elaine, Whenever I say something to you that hits a nerve your response is, “I know you are but what am I.” That’s probably a consequence of being w/ grammar school kids your entire adult life. To say that I play victim is ludicrous on it’s face. Show me the evidence. I’m not one of your compliant 8 year olds and I will not “sit back and chill.” I’ve known a lot of grammar school teachers, some great, most average, and some any profession. However, none of them were Mensa members and most were control freaks.

  6. Elaine,

    I use USPS all the time to send packages, registered letters, greeting cards and tax payments. I also receive a lot of packages (I’m a big user of Subscribe & Save at Amazon) sent through USPS. I have no problems with the service and use their on-line tracking service all the time. UPS and FedEx also deliver but I prefer using USPS for packages I want to send. I’ve had the same mail carrier for years and we are friendly having kept track of each others lives and families through the years.

    Now, except for taxes, I no longer use the mail to pay bills but that’s just more convenient and cheaper however, you are quite right regarding older folk who don’t use a computer. I correspond regularly with many and always send greeting cards to friends through USPS.

    I use them on a weekly basis and have no problems at all.

  7. nick,

    I know how you get when people challenge your opinion on issues. As I recall from an earlier discussion, you are the expert at playing victim. Sit back and chill.

  8. Thanks, Elaine. The Lake Wobegon/Nirvana was just a tease. People who take themselves so seriously get indignant when challenged. I didn’t insult your intelligence or belittle you. In deference to your polemic on Chicago teachers I’ve stayed away. Playing victim doesn’t work w/ me. Buck up, girl!

  9. nick,

    There you go again! I don’t live in Lake Wobegon or Nirvana. I don’t see the USPS as archaic. I value its services. I still write letters and send greeting cards and gifts via the USPS. Many elderly people I know do not have computers or email accounts. I haven’t experienced any problems with the post office in my city. You think everyone should share your viewpoint on issues–including the privatization of public education and other government services. When they don’t, you attempt to insult their intelligence/belittle them.

  10. I feel like I’m in an alternate universe! These cases aren’t about grandma who wrote her check before her SS check was electronically transferred to her account. These are folks who knowingly wrote checks that bounced, and it’s almost always MULTIPLE checks. Does anyone here think it’s not a crime to go into a store and walk out w/ merchandise w/o paying? Willfully bouncing checks is the same. As stated previously, businesses don’t want to go through this process. They first give the bad check writer the opportunity to make it right. And most people do make it right. We’re talking about the people who say, “f#ck you, come and get me if you want your money.”

  11. Elaine, You must live in Lake Wobegon or Nirvana. The PO is archaic. Even the govt. doesn’t want to send their checks via mail, it’s electronic transfers.

  12. Arthur,
    Don’t confuse bouncing a check unintentionally with check fraud. Corporations should not be threatening non-criminals with criminal prosecution.

    1. Writing a bad check is considered a crime, NOT a civil matter. If you do not send the check, you cannot be put in jail. If you do send a bad check, you can. In Harris county the sherrif has a end of year round up of all the bad check writers where they arrest all the ones they can grab.

  13. From what I understand, bad checks are NOT like a bad debt. Bad checks are considered CRIMES since it involves theft of services, and fraud. it is not like a bill collector. THAT is the reason for the use of DAs letterhead. You cannot be taken to jail over a bad debt, but you CAN and in many cases WILL go to jail for writing bad checks.

  14. Kraaken,
    Thanks. The DA should be reviewing all files before a collection agency sends out threatening letters on DA letterhead.
    I am afraid you could be right.

  15. Rafflaw:>“Maybe I am just naive, but does it make sense for the DA’s office to outsource the job of investigating and prosecuting alleged perpetrators of bounced checks to private companies who may or may not actually investigate the bounced check circumstances before “official” threats of criminal prosecution are sent out?”<

    After reading many of your posts, Raff, 'naive' is one word I would never use about you. I don't know how other DAs obtain their position(s), but here in AZ, the DAs are elected positions at State, County and municipal levels. While I haven't heard of AZ doing this sort of thing, it wouldn't surprise me if they tried. It seems to me, though, that in all probability that such a step would not be legal. After all, isn't the investigation of felonies the job of the various police agencies? Doesn't the DAs office only enter the fray after charges have been drawn up of an indictment charged? And how could they possibly give that authority to a collection agency which has no police powers at all?

  16. lets privatize the coast guard too. then when you’re out at sea and have problems you can give your credit card # with your distress signal and rescue companies can compete to see who gets there first.

    if you have good credit.

    better check that cruise ship company’s credit before you leave the dock too. after a couple of weeks dead in the water you might think you’re on the cannibal cruise.

  17. Rafflaw, I don’t think people realize the actual reality of what a debtor’s prison was. I can see the contemporary prisoners of debt being ‘encouraged’ to do prison labor to satisfy their debt to the state and/or the merchant. It’s closer than people think.

  18. Lotta,
    Thanks for the link. It is sad, but these kind of policies can lead us back to debtor prisons.
    Elaine and nick,
    The Post Office is an essential part of the commons, IMO.

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