In preparing the story about Kitsap County’s program for collecting on bad checks, I quickly learned that the issue generally isn’t new, even if it is just getting attention here. There were a lot of stories out there, and the primary bone of contention in all of them is that the letter bad-check writers are getting looks like it came from the prosecutor’s office.
That implies prosecution, which even our prosecutor suggests is unlikely.
Given that the referendum on Hauge is hotly contested anyway, it was not surprising it drew out the the prosecutor’s critics. Nor should it be surprising that the program would have its defenders.
Going with that, though, is the concern of business owners burned by hot checks. While the number of people writing checks for regular retail is shrinking, there are still a fair number of them doing it and enough bad checks out there to hurt the businesses that get them.
It’s that concern that has probably sparked the seeming popularity among prosecutors for the program. All of our county neighbors that share land boundaries with us use it. Beth Terrell, attorney for the plaintiffs, said 12 Washington counties use Bounceback for the same operation Kitsap County does. They are Adams, Clallam, Clark, Grant, Jefferson, Kitsap, Kittitas, Klickitat, Mason, Pierce, Spokane, Thurston, Walla Walla, and Yakima. I couldn’t find the websites for the programs in Adams and Walla Walla.
What we found out is this is not a new issue. Some of the same issues were raised in a lawsuit we referenced in the story, the final opinion you can read here. Attorneys on this case believe they can do a better job arguing against the legality of the program than the case made before.
Crosscut did a comprehensive piece on the program in 2012 and pointed out that King County, at least back then, wasn’t doing anything similar, because the prosecutor there said he doesn’t want to mix public prosecution with private business.
Oregon passed a law prohibiting companies from sending out letters under prosecutor letterhead, which caused some Oregon counties to cancel the program. Counties in Massachusetts bailed on the program, but there are enough stories out there suggesting BounceBack and other companies like it are hurting for customers.
That could change if legislators successfully restrict these kind of operations, or if the Washington suit is successful. The attorneys for the plaintiffs in this case don’t say they want Bounceback to necessarily go out of business, but they want them to follow what they believe is the law, particularly the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That would mean no more prosecutor letterhead and no more threatening prosecution. For those who get the letters it would at least mean they know who is really issuing the threat. And it would likely mean more customers would balk at taking the class and get away with it, which might make the business model unworkable for collectors.