Why Not To Bounce Checks

Once upon a time, I was a young person who didn’t have a lot of financial sense.  I made good money, but I spent it all faster than I made it.  My credit cards were usually at their limit (and sometimes over) and the balance in my checking account hovered near zero on a regular basis.  There were a few times when I wrote checks knowing that I didn’t have money in the bank but assuming that I would get the money into the bank before the check cleared.  I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth.

On occasion, however, I just didn’t know how much money I had, or I would make a math error.  One incident turned out particularly bad and I am still dealing with it, about 20 years later.

I received a snazzy bicycle as a birthday present and decided that I was going to need some gear to go with my new bike.  Shorts, that little tool kit that fits under your seat, and a water bottle.  I don’t remember what else I bought but I know the total was around $100.  I wrote a check (this was back in the dark ages when using checks at stores was common) and bounced on home with my nifty new things.

I don’t remember how I discovered that the check had bounced as we didn’t have internet banking back then.  Regardless, I discovered that the check had bounced and was truly surprised.  I gathered the cash and went to the bicycle store.  I apologized, paid the money, and got a receipt.  End of story, right?  As you have probably guessed, no.

Several months later (I think it was over a year but I can’t exactly remember), I was cat sitting for a former roommate at my old house.  My driver’s license still showed this as my address and I still got some mail there.  I came back to that house one night and the neighbors said, “The police were looking for you.”  I immediately feared that something had happened to someone in my family and so I called the local police station.  The told me that there was some problem about a check and I could just come over in the morning.  Hmmm…I still didn’t think much of it.  I’m not sure why I wasn’t concerned, but I wasn’t.

The next morning, I put on my favorite weekend clothes (long jean shorts and an oversized oxford shirt with a hole in it) and drove over to the police station.  I was absolutely shocked when I was told that I was under arrest for writing bad checks.  Still relatively unconcerned, and not thinking about how the judicial process actually works, I calmly told the police officers that I had the receipt for the payment and I would just scootch home and get it.  Um, no, that’s not how the system works.  The process doesn’t stop until you get to the judge, so I was fingerprinted, put in a cell where I waited for hours before I was taken by police van to the courthouse where I went in front of the magistrate.  I explained the situation to the magistrate who released me pending a court date and I was let out a back door into the sun with no transportation and only the few things in my teensy purse.  Thankfully, I was able to find a pay phone and track down a friend to take me back to my car, which was still at the police station.

The next week, I found the precious receipt and feeling that this was a pretty simple case and that I shouldn’t need to spend my own money on a lawyer, I contacted the local public defender’s office.  I met with a very nice young attorney who discovered that the bike shop staff hadn’t communicated to the bookkeeper that I had paid for the check.  I left the public defender’s office feeling confident and thankful that this whole little mess would be easily resolved.  A few months later, I received paperwork that my trial had been canceled, followed by some language that was a little confusing but it didn’t seem important at the time.  Awesome!

Fast forward ten years later.  I am now married and we are living in Hawaii.  I was applying for a job with the Board of Education and got a phone call asking me to come to the human resources office.  The nice girl there said that she was sure there was a reasonable explanation for the discrepancy between my application, that said I had never been convicted of a crime, and my criminal background check, which stated that I was convicted of writing bad checks.  I was (again) shocked.  But I hadn’t been convicted!  That whole mess was taken care of!

As it turns out, the public defender’s office had not gotten the case dismissed as I had thought, but rather had it expedited the process by pleading “nolo contendere” or “no contest.”  This plea has the same effect as a guilty plea and shows up on a criminal record the same as being found guilty.  So all these years that I have been checking the box for never convicted of a crime, I was lying.  I had no idea!

For several years I have been shoving this to the back burner but now it is time to address the issue head on.  I have done a bit of research and it seems that I will need to have the records retrieved from the appropriate court and petition to have the records expunged.  I’m certainly not going to leave this up to myself or other amateurs so I will need to hire a good lawyer from the local jurisdiction.  (Which isn’t even on the same continent that I currently live.)  I don’t know how much this will cost or how long it will take, but it isn’t going to be cheap or easy.

I have learned a lot from this whole fiasco, and perhaps you might learn a bit, too.  First, don’t overdraw your checking account.  Get overdraft protection, balance your checkbook, and be careful.  Second, follow up on financial errors to make sure that they are clearly resolved.  Get it in writing if possible.  Third, if you run into trouble, get (and pay for) quality professional help.  Fourth, periodically check your credit, driving and criminal background reports to make sure they are accurate.

And to think, I truly believed that I had the money in the bank when I wrote that check.

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.