I was a deputy county counsel in El Dorado County and one of my jobs was to oversee the collections office. I received notice that a man had spent three days in jail as a result of a collection matter. The underlying offense was an overdue library book fine of $16.
This really piqued my interest in that I remember being told as a little boy that if you didn’t pay your library fines, you would go to jail. I just never knew of it happening. But here is how it unfolded.
The collections officer would send out notices of all fines that were past due for all kinds of county services, including overdue library books. If a person did not respond to a letter, she would then take them to small claims court and serve them with a complaint. She would do anywhere from 30 to 50 at one time. If the person didn’t show up at court, judgment was entered against them. Then she would set up a debtor’s hearing, also by court order. When the person didn’t show up for that hearing, a bench warrant would be issued for their arrest. If they got pulled over for a traffic stop the police would check for any outstanding warrants and, seeing one, they would arrest them and take them to jail. If this happened on a Friday evening, they wouldn’t make bail until Monday. That is what happened with this poor fellow.
There were six lawyers in the county counsel’s office at the time and we were all in stitches about the poor guy who didn’t pay his library fine and went to jail. We lamented how “the judge threw the book at him” or how he was put to work in the prison library. We stated that we all felt much better knowing that another book abuser was behind bars and we coined the phrase, “Use a book, go to prison.”
After our hour of hysteria, we decided to change the collection policy. We would only go to court on fines of $100 or more. The rest would be subject to continued mailings or levies on other county payments.
But for all you parents who are trying to instill fear into your children for overdue library books, let them know that they really can be arrested and taken to jail.
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.