Change in law prompts end to bad-check program
EUGENE — A change in state law that takes effect Jan. 1 has prompted Lane County to end a program that helped businesses recover their financial losses from people who deliberately write bad checks.
District Attorney Alex Gardner tells The Register-Guard the legislative change makes the check enforcement program too expensive to operate. The county program has helped businesses recover more than $250,000 in restitution from bad checks since 2004.
Several other counties offer similar check enforcement programs run by the same company used by Lane County, Ohio-based BounceBack.
Bob Hermann, Washington County's district attorney, said he too will end the check enforcement program that uses BounceBack. He said without a clear distinction between restitution and consumer debt, the program exposes the county to the risk of expensive litigation.
Gardner said he thinks the change to the law means that payments would fall under the federal Fair Debt Collection Act. And because of the requirements of the federal debt-collection law, the cost of collecting restitution would rise, and could expose the county to a lawsuit, he said.
“If there's even a 20 percent chance we might fall afoul of the Fair Debt Collection Act, then we simply can't risk it,” Gardner told The Register-Guard.
Gardner's move dismayed state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who worked with Gardner on passing the law.
“I'm somewhat surprised and dumbfounded to learn now that we've got a problem with this,” Prozanski told the newspaper.
Check enforcement programs essentially are diversion programs, similar to those used for some drunken driving and drug cases. They allow people accused of deliberately writing a bad check to avoid prosecution by paying the amount owed plus fees and taking part in an education program.
A number of district attorneys across the country have contracted with private firms to handle such bad-check programs.
But the programs came under criticism because the private debt collectors were sending out letters using the district attorney letterhead and seal in their effort to get payment. Critics said that made it appear the letters came from a prosecutor.
So the 2013 Oregon Legislature passed a bill amending the law to prohibit district attorneys from allowing private companies to send out letters using the letterhead or seal of their offices.
Prozanski, a sponsor of the bill and chairman of the state senate's Judiciary Committee, said the changes weren't meant to affect other parts of the program.
Prozanski, who works as a prosecutor, said he's concerned to hear now that programs are shutting down.