Wal-Mart takes on bad checks; county will lose funding

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bad checks passed at Wal-Mart will no longer be turned over to the Cape Girardeau County prosecutor's office.

Wal-Mart has adopted a national policy of using a private collection agency for bad checks written to the store after Nov. 17.

"It will no longer be a crime to pass a bad check at Wal-Mart. They will handle it as a civil case," said Morley Swingle, Cape Girardeau County's prosecuting attorney.

Swingle said Wal-Mart is making a mistake, because the people who write bad checks won't be prosecuted and the company might see a higher number of bad checks as a result.

Wal-Mart has said it is making the change to consolidate the collection of bad checks with one vendor.

When the prosecutor's office collects restitution from a bad check, the face value of the check and other fees go to the merchant. In Oklahoma, where prosecutors add an average collection charge of $140 per check, county prosecutors have been racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges from bad checks cashed at Wal-Marts.

A Missouri statute allows the Cape Girardeau County prosecutor's office to receive a collection fee ranging from $5 to $25 depending on the amount of the bad check. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 of this year, the Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney's office collected almost $65,000 in restitution from bad checks written at Wal-Mart. Of that amount, more than $10,000 was paid over to the prosecutor's office.

Funds generated from the collection fees pay the salary of the county's bad check administrator Louis Burgess. The collection fees also pay for bogus check programs, which allow people to avoid prosecution by making restitution and taking classes on check fraud.

Swingle said Wal-Mart's policy change won't affect his personnel needs because plenty of bad checks still will be written in the county. "It won't disrupt any of our programs, but it will cut our workload down," he said. "We'll have fewer criminal cases on bad checks."

Last year, 4,426 bad checks were turned over to the bad check office in Cape Girardeau County for prosecution.

A person who writes a bad check for more than $500 faces a felony charge which carries up to four years in prison and a $5,000 fine as the maximum punishment. A person writing a check under $500 faces a misdemeanor charge carrying a punishment of up to one year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine.

Cape Girardeau County has a bad check policy which requires a merchant to report the check within 30 days for the prosecutor's office to collect on it.

Between the beginning of the year and Nov. 30, almost $350,000 has been collected in restitution and fees from bad checks written in Cape Girardeau County. The bad checks office has received about $41,000 in collection fees.

The top six merchants for bad check collections are Wal-Mart, Food Giant, Schnucks, Country Mart in Jackson, Kidds Gas & Convenience Stores and Bi-State Southern.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

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