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Felony bad checks stress judicial system

By Staff
August 5, 2001
The July grand jury has finished its deliberations. District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell presented 294 cases to the 18-member panel. Some of these cases must have involved multiple counts, because the grand jury issued 323 indictments and declined to indict in 19 cases.
While we wait for arraignment day in Lauderdale County, when the list of indictments will be available, it might be interesting to look at what kinds of cases were presented.
The most common offenses involved illegal drugs possessing them, manufacturing them, selling them. Mitchell said he planned to present 86 drug cases to the grand jury, 29 percent of all cases presented.
The second-most common case presented to the grand jury was for felony bad checks. The 69 cases presented accounted for almost a quarter of all cases heard by the grand jury. If you go to the Lauderdale County Courthouse and review the docket book, which lists action in current felony cases, you will find that percentage holds true.
System stressed
Bad check prosecutions clearly have benefits, but Circuit Court officials report they are placing stress on the judicial system. Here's how felony bad check laws work:
Bad checks under $100 are treated as misdemeanors on the first and second offenses; the third offense is a felony. Fines range from $25 to $1,000, and prison sentences from five days to five years are possible.
Bad checks of $100 or more may be treated as felony offenses the first time. Fines range from $100 to $1,000 and the maximum prison sentence is three years.
Felony bad check statutes were authorized by the Mississippi State Legislature. Lawmakers say it is the intent to steal that is being punished and this is an important distinction.
Little like shoplifting'
It is the presumption of criminal intent after 30 days that enables writing bad checks to be prosecuted by the district attorney's office.
That's good, because otherwise it would look like county governments had gotten into the collections business.
Practically speaking, however, that is what happens. Very few people go to jail for writing bad checks, but along the way, they do make the check good. In four of five felony bad check cases, defendants are allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor if they make restitution. And, the district attorney's office collects a handling fee for each felony bad check case it handles.
To place it in perspective
The prosecution of violent crimes sometimes includes restitution. Penalties for a defendant convicted of aggravated assault for shooting and wounding someone, for example, can include both jail time and restitution. The offender may be required to pay the victim's hospital bills. But it is the shooting that is being punished not the fact that the defendant cost the victim money.
The logic behind felony bad check prosecutions is the same. It is the intent to steal that is being punished; payment of the debt is restitution.
But it is an uneasy balance.
At the very least, the Legislature should consider the effect bad check indictments have on the system.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail her at smonk@themeridianstar.com.