By Diana Bowley of the News Staff - DOVER-FOXCROFT - Faced with a continuous flow of bad checks that tax police, the courts and his office, a local prosecutor has taken the bold step of telling some large businesses that he no longer will prosecute for these checks unless forgery is involved.
R. Christopher Almy, district attorney for Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, has advised Bangor Wal-Mart, A.E. Robinson Oil Co., R.H. Foster Energy and Irving Oil Ltd. that they should use modern technology such as an electronic check acceptance service, or just accept cash, credit cards or debit cards, instead of checks in the future.
"Our position is we're trying to get as many stores as we can to just use debit cards or whatever method they can employ to prevent bad checks from filtering around," Almy said this week.
While Almy has the support of law enforcement and other district attorneys who see the cases as time-consuming, his move has caused concern among businesses and an outcry from some consumers.
"I appreciate the balancing act that district attorneys have to do. They have limited resources and they have to prioritize, but what I have difficulty with is with any message given that people are not going to be prosecuted for something," Jim McGregor, executive vice president of the Maine Merchants Association, said Friday.
The fact that Almy does not intend to prosecute all felonies from these stores does not break any laws, according to Chuck Dow, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.
"Whether to prosecute is always discretionary," he said this week.
In justifying the change, Almy said he receives 200 to 400 bad checks a year, which consumes the time of law enforcement and his office.
"Taxpayers should not carry the burden of bad checks; if the merchants can't stop these crimes at the point of sale, it shouldn't be up to the taxpayers to foot the bill if they choose not to use modern technology," he said. In addition, if paper checks were eliminated, it would decrease the avenues that drug addicts have to get free money, he said.
Drug users frequently steal one or two checks at a time from relatives and friends and cash them for quick money.
Almy said he has no blanket rule on what felonies he will prosecute on behalf of the four companies. "If we get a felony that is a clear case of fraud, we certainly are going to be interested in looking at it," he said.
The businesses contacted by Almy either have made changes or are considering them. Bangor Wal-Mart officials, who were notified of Almy's decision this summer, have embraced an electronic check service. R.H. Foster Energy has contracted for electronic check acceptance services at three of its locations on a trial basis.
A representative of Irving Oil Ltd. said Thursday that the company still accepts checks at a majority of its Maine locations, but the process is being reviewed by the company. A.E. Robinson Oil Co., which was notified about a month ago, has chosen not to take checks at its 10 convenience stores effective Nov. 1, a decision that is very unpopular.
Senior citizens who are unfamiliar with or unable to use debit cards and the computer to keep track of daily or weekly transactions in between monthly bank statements are not the least bit happy, nor are consumers who long have relied on paper checking. These people have voiced their concerns to Robinson officials.
"I can understand if they have bad checks not to let them cash checks, but why punish everybody?" Karen Brown of Abbot said Thursday of Robinson's decision. Brown, who says she has a debit card but prefers to use checks to purchase gasoline and groceries when she stops nearly every day at Robinson's convenience stores, takes the change personally.
"That's like punishing me for what somebody else is doing," she said.
Jim Robinson, owner of A.E. Robinson Oil Co., said this week that he recognizes that it is not a popular decision. While he no longer will take paper checks at his convenience stores, he will continue to take checks at his heating oil offices, he said.
"I hate to rock the boat, but what's a business supposed to do if the district attorney tells you that he will not prosecute bad checks anymore?" Robinson asked. "We're getting back ever so many of these checks that we've got a whole file full that we can't do anything with."
Robinson said that he is sure he will lose business because of the change. On the other hand, he said, he cannot have a large volume of dollars outstanding in checks. "It doesn't make me very happy," he said.
Also unhappy with Almy's decision is Kathy Leavitt, R.H. Foster Energy's credit manager.
"It is sad that the businesses who support the communities by providing jobs, paying taxes and reinvesting in hometowns will be removed from the criminal justice system when they are truly the victims of Criminal Code 708 [negotiating a worthless instrument]," she said this week. Bad checks, which are covered under the criminal code, represent the biggest loss to most Maine businesses, Leavitt said.
Leavitt said the company has engaged an electronic check acceptance service at three of its convenience stores, a move that was not inexpensive. Nor does it eliminate bad checks, she said. The machine indicates whether the person has an account and money in it, but the customer could have written checks in the same period draining the account. Regardless, the company must pay 20 cents a check for the service, she said.
"It's not an uncomplicated thing," she said of the electronic service, because it must interface with computer systems the business uses.
For customers who do not reimburse the company for bad checks within the seven days allowed by law, the company now will take them to small claims court, Leavitt said, a move that will increase not only the workload in that court but also the penalties for violators.
Leavitt faulted Almy for targeting certain businesses for the change. If it's considered a crime to write a bad check at a small pizza shop, then it should be considered a crime at larger stores, she said.
Almy said the larger stores have the money to install electronic devices, whereas smaller stores do not have the capability.
"It's like all the crimes they want us to handle - bad checks or domestic violence or drugs. We have to have a reasonable policy on where we're going to put our resources," Michael Povich, district attorney for Washington and Hancock counties, said this week.
Povich said he limits his prosecution of bad checks to felonies, multiple checks and checks greater than $50.
"We do have limits; we don't have zero tolerance," he said.
Neale Adams, Aroostook County's district attorney, said he prosecutes all bad-check cases, but noted there are ways that residents and usinesses can protect themselves.
He said drivers lock their cars to prevent theft, "and they don't leave a sign that says 'take me' on it."
Almy also has the backing of local police. Investigator Guy Dow of the Piscataquis County Sheriff's Department, who processes about 30 bad checks a month from businesses, finds that a majority of the people who write the checks are living today on tomorrow's wages.
"People need to be responsible. If you don't have the funds, don't write a check or use a debit card," Dow said.
Sgt. James Owens of the Bangor Police Department agrees with Dow that it's up to the consumers to be responsible for their checks. He said his department has been "swamped" by bad checks from businesses in the city.
"Whoever worked that [Wal-Mart] side of town, it was not uncommon for him [the officer] to be there twice or three times a day, and they would give him two or three checks each time," Owens said. The changes that Wal-Mart has made in check cashing have made a world of difference, he said.
Those changes are what Almy expected.
"Debit cards are the thing of the future, and more stores have got to get to this point," Almy said. "I'm trying to get this going so that we move to debit cards and away from these checks."
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