s
s
Sections
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
X

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

X

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Thousands of Sonoma County check bouncers who paid hefty fees to avoid court have been added to a lawsuit seeking refunds from the company that runs the county's bad check restitution program.

A federal judge in San Jose last week granted class-action status to a lawsuit against San Clemente-based American Corrective Counseling Services Inc. Since 2001, the company has operated the bad check restitution program at the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office. It operates similar programs all over the nation.

"Debt collectors, such as ACCS, cannot use their status as government contractors to strong-arm consumers," said Deepak Gupta, an attorney with the public interest group Public Citizen, which is handling the case.

The ruling means about 900,000 California residents who've received letters from the company since 1997 will become part of the lawsuit, unless they opt out. Of those, about 400,000 people paid the $120 fee to participate in the program, generating about $50 million in revenue for ACCS, according to Paul Arons, one of the attorneys on the case.

The goal of the suit is both to recover money for people who participated in program, but also to end its practice in California, Arons said.

"It's our position that the entire operation is illegal," said Arons, a Bay Area attorney who now lives in Washington.

Bad check restitution programs are allowed in California with certain restrictions as a way to help recover money for merchants who are the victims of bad checks and to reduce caseloads for district attorneys.

Supporters say the program raises money for prosecutors, gives offenders a way to avoid court and teaches people better money management skills.

But ACCS has found itself at the center of a legal battle over the way district attorneys partner with private companies to chase down -- some would say shake down -- people who owe money.

Critics say ACCS is little more than a debt collection agency "renting" the name of a district attorney's office to scare people and increase its collection rate. The letters strongly imply that people who receive the notices could be prosecuted if they do not enroll in the program and pay the $120 fee, Arons said.

The reality is that check-bouncing prosecutions are extremely rare, and no one in the D.A.'s office reviews the circumstances of each incident before the threatening letters go out, Arons said.

"After people read that letter, they are terrified," Arons said. "They are very concerned that if they don't do everything in the letter, they are going to have a problem with the D.A."

In March, Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua defended the partnership with ACCS, pointing out that more than 1,500 local merchants have taken advantage of the program, helping them recover nearly $1 million from about 4,000 people since 2001.

The DA's office has received $102,000 from ACCS since the program began, helping it offset the cost of several vital programs, he said.

At the time, Passalacqua said his office was considering ways to rewrite the letter to be "more sensitive." It was unclear yesterday if that has occurred. Passalacqua and ACCS officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment Monday.

The lawsuit seeks a refund of the $120 fee paid by each participant to ACCS for its one-day personal finance class. It does not request any of the restitution participants paid to merchants who received bad checks.

The company has said it would go bankrupt if it were forced to return the money, Arons said. Under those circumstances, many people may not get any money back at all, he said.

"We would like to get everyone money back," he said, "but if we could do only one thing, it would be to stop the practice. Sometimes (class-action lawsuits) are about stopping things that are very bad and cannot be stopped in any other way."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

Show Comment