Prosecutors lend letterhead to debt collectors

by Walter Olson on September 18, 2012

The letters to persons who have written bad checks, which threaten jail, “bear the seal and signature of the local district attorney’s office. But there is a catch: the letters are from debt-collection companies, which the prosecutors allow to use their letterhead. In return, the companies try to collect not only the unpaid check, but also high fees from debtors for a class on budgeting and financial responsibility, some of which goes back to the district attorneys’ offices.” Moreover, “the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.” [New York Times; commentary, Scott Greenfield, BoingBoing]

{ 7 comments }

1 Bill Poser 09.18.12 at 1:30 am

Isn’t there a widespread ethical rule against threatening criminal prosecution to gain an advantage in a civil matter which these prosecutors are violating? I suppose that the kickbacks are not technically bribes since they go to the government and not to the prosecutors personally.

2 L Nettles 09.18.12 at 6:51 am

And yet robosigning was a national scandal

3 Kevin 09.18.12 at 2:55 pm

There is also an ethical rule against deceptive conduct, and I know there are decisions holding that various types of attorney letterheads may violate that rule. A solo practitioner who calls himself “Greenfield and Associates,” for example, is probably violating that rule because there are no “associates.” (Scott Greenfield doesn’t do this; I just needed a name for my example.) So to me it’s pretty obvious that this use of letterhead also violates that rule. It ought to be challenged on that basis.

There are also rules against splitting fees with non-lawyers in some circumstances (and in some jurisdictions). That might also be worth a look in this situation.

4 Anonymous Attorney 09.18.12 at 3:23 pm

I do not see any justification for the kickback from the collection agency to the distict attorney. What’s that for? Other than a way for the agency to ingratiate inself with the district attorney? Seems to me that any money you squeeze out of someone in the criminal context has to have some legitimate basis: a legislatively-set fine, a court cost, etc.

The whole thing is just greasy. On the other hand, who accepts paper checks anymore?

5 David Schwartz 09.18.12 at 7:30 pm

AA: The kickback is in exchange for the letterhead and signature which, I’m thinking, probably increases the number of people who pay.

6 VMS 09.18.12 at 8:03 pm

It seems to violate the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. The DAs and the debt collectors may be jointly liable for this practice. No prosecutorial immunity here!

7 ShelbyC 09.18.12 at 9:57 pm

The prosecutors’ conduct was clearly deceptive here. Every prosecutor involved in this should be disbarred.

Comments on this entry are closed.