The Hamlet routine: to press or not to press (charges)

None of these is actually my mailbox; I just needed art to go with this...

None of these is actually my mailbox; I just needed art to go with this…

Monday morning, my wife asked me if I’d done anything with our mailbox at the house — put anything in, taken anything out, whatever. No, I hadn’t. She said she’d come home mid-morning and found it open. And two pieces of mail she had placed in it Sunday afternoon, both containing checks to pay bills, were missing.

So we speculated that maybe the postal worker had come freakishly early or something — J vaguely recalled having seen the mail truck in the neighborhood on Sunday and wondering what it was doing — and made plans to contact the folks to whom the checks were mailed to make sure they arrived.

Then, a couple of hours later, I got a call from our credit union, with whom we have that checking account. Someone we had never heard of had just been in their Irmo office trying to cash a check from us for $680.42.

One of the checks we were mailing was for $130.42. Think about it.

While I can see how someone made that change, I still don’t know how anyone managed to change what was in the TO space. The check was to Lexington County, to pay a vehicle tax, and the name it had been changed to wasn’t even close.

Anyway, the credit union refused to cash it, the person left with the check, and the teller — who remembered us from when she worked in the West Columbia branch — called me.

So since the thieves have my account number and routing number, I ran over to the main office and had the account closed.

That was just the start. We had to change a couple of direct deposits, and some automatic payments — Netflix and the like. There were the two probably-stolen checks, and an earlier payment that hadn’t gone through, so we’d have to get with all those folks and arrange to pay another way.

Yeah, I know. You’re wondering why we were putting checks into our mailbox. A lot of people have asked that the last couple of days, accompanied by “Didn’t you know…?” No, we didn’t. While everyone and his brother is mentioning it now, no one had ever mentioned it to us before — and we’d gone our entire lives without anything being stolen from our mailbox. To our knowledge.

And like most of you, we don’t send out many checks anymore, usually doing electronic transfers. But that doesn’t always work out. Rest assured, if we send out checks henceforth, we’ll follow Moscow Rules — maybe changing vehicles two or three times on the way to an official U.S. gummint mailbox.

Next step, police reports. We live in the county, so I called the sheriff’s office and gave the details over the phone. Separately — since a separate crime was attempted in that jurisdiction — the credit union contacted the Irmo PD.

Which led to a bit of a dilemma for me.

Tuesday morning, the Irmo policeman who’d taken the report called me to ask whether we wanted to press charges. Not that there was a suspect in custody or anything — the police wanted to know whether they would have a case (whether we would testify that we never wrote a check to the person in question, for instance) before devoting resources to it.

I sympathized. The police need to prioritize, I understand. But being asked this question caused me concern on two fronts, having to do with opinions I’ve long held and expressed:

  • I’m all for looking out for crime victims, but I am adamantly opposed to them making decisions about prosecution. You’ll hear people say that “The victim’s family should decide” whether to pursue the death penalty in murder cases, for instance. That’s an outrageous suggestion in my book. We don’t have police and courts to act as agents of personal vengeance for individuals. Our laws against murder and passing bad checks exist because we, as a society, don’t think people should be allowed to kill other people or steal from them — such things are disruptive to civilization. (This is related to my oft-stated opposition to abortion on demand — to me, it’s a violation of the ideal of a nation of laws and not of men to have the one most interested person on the planet have absolute power over life and death.)
  • As y’all know, I don’t think we need to be locking up people who commit nonviolent crimes. Many if not most of the women in prison, from what I’ve heard in the past, are there for trying to pass bad checks. Don’t know if that’s still true, but that’s what I used to hear.

Add to that the fact that aside from being greatly inconvenienced, I had lost nothing, thanks to the smart actions of the teller who refused to cash the check (I told her supervisor she should get a gold star for that). The credit union wasn’t out anything, either — aside from time spent on this.

So I dithered. I asked the officer if I could call him back, and promised to do so by the end of the day.

I polled people about it, and everyone I talked to said of course you want them to prosecute. Still, I did the Hamlet routine — to press or not to press?

I finally decided that I had no choice, for the simple fact that it wasn’t about us, even though it felt like it. Whoever had stolen the checks, and whoever tried to pass the forged one (which could be more than one person), might do it again. For all I know, the person or people in question might do this all the time.

And that needed to be stopped, if possible. It wasn’t about what had or hadn’t been done to us; it was about protecting the rest of society. If we didn’t follow through, additional crimes might occur. If we didn’t proceed, the social contract would fray a bit more.

You know me — once I had it framed in my mind in communitarian terms, I called the officer and asked him to proceed.

If anything else interesting happens, I’ll keep y’all posted…

By the way, what would y’all have done (I mean, besides not putting the checks in the mailbox to start with)?

17 thoughts on “The Hamlet routine: to press or not to press (charges)

  1. Karen Pearson

    I was wondering when you’d realize that? You aren’t deciding his fate; you are simply stating that you hadn’t written a check to him; that’s a fact, not a judgement.

  2. Dave Crockett

    Does the credit union still have the check that the miscreant tried to cash? If so, it would be interesting to know how they doctored it to remove the Lexington County treasurer’s office on it. If no, why would they let a suspected fraudulent check to be left in circulation (and, for that matter, not attempt to detain/delay the suspect who tried to cash it)? FWIW, for years the Oconee County treasurer’s office instructed that checks be written out to the treasurer, personally. That always stuck me as odd and a potential security problem, and it went away with the election of a new treasurer a while back.

    Yeah, I think you kinda need to help the police to do their job by doing yours (imho).

    I’ve never had a check stolen but I have had my credit cards compromised more than once, and that is about as much of a hassle as you’ve had to go through. Now I have the mechanisms set up to let me know literally in seconds when a charge is made against them. It doesn’t prevent their attempted fraudulent use but it gives me a heads-up to contact the card vendor immediately.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    The police cannot testify to all the facts of the case. If you won’t show up, they don’t want to have to subpoena you for a case like this.
    You can get special check-writing pens, but I find that a ballpoint is probably sufficiently secure–not a rollerball. Think about how easy it is to blot rollerball ink.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I suspect it might have taken physical force to hold onto it. I’m very proud of the teller who smelled a rat and called me. I don’t hold it against her that she didn’t wrestle the suspect to the ground and take the check.

        They DID, however, get a picture of the suspect, and the police now have it…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I assume the check was passed to the teller to cash it, as is normal practice.

          I’m thinking no random person would have rifled through your outgoing mail–you hardly live somewhere where a strange person would go unnoticed, unlike where I am. I’m thinking it was some person in the mail chain, or someone, say, working on a house nearby who saw that no one was left at home…

  4. Mark Stewart

    This was a moral dilemma for you?

    BTW, the preponderance of civil court cases do reek of personal vengeance at their core. This is even more true of Family Court – and there you can also see vengeance delivered by institutions as well. It’s all pretty dispiriting.

    But not pressing charges when a crime has clearly, maliciously, been committed is the slippery slope to a society you don’t want to live in. Or at least that’s my opinion.

  5. Kiki

    What I’ve heard about imprisoned women is a variation on that; that they’re mostly in for crimes related to supporting their families, such as passing bad checks for groceries. I just think whatever her problem is will only get worse if she gets a conviction on her record. Harder to get a job when you have to check the box.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I understand passing a bad check on your own account for groceries. Stealing a check from someone’s mailbox, altering it and trying to cash it evokes less sympathy.
      Orange Is the New Black does a good job of illustrating how women end up in prison…at least in the later seasons.

  6. Scout

    I had a check stolen from my mailbox about 12 years ago. It was a check to me from the insurance company for my totaled car after I’d been in a car accident. It was a big hassle to get it all resolved, as I recall. For one thing, it took awhile for me to realize it had happened as I just thought it hadn’t come yet. When I finally investigated, the insurance company said it had been cashed. They were not eager to take responsibility and issue a new check. They tried to tell me the bank that cashed it should take responsibility and investigate. I don’t remember the details now but I kept being referred to the wrong people and when I asked if I needed to file a police report, they said no the bank would investigate or something like that. Eventually I did – but I wasn’t sure which police department – city or county; I believe I went to City first – and still got nowhere.

    Nothing happened until I got to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. They were good. They took the report and told me what to do to get the insurance company to issue a new check. Which I did and they did. Unfortunately by that time so much time had passed, any leads to catching the perpetrators were pretty cold. The check was cashed in Sumter near the airforce base I recall.

    It was very frustrating though!

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      There are laws about negotiable instruments, like checks, and they are so complicated, I learned them for two different bar exams and then forgot most of them. You’d think law enforcement gets enough of these cases–and it’s a federal crime to tamper with the US Mail, to boot.

  7. Norm Ivey

    I’d press charges for the same reasons you give. It’s not about me and my stuff; it’s about the community.

    My bride’s car was broken into a few years back and a laptop was stolen. A deputy arrived to investigate. During the course of him interviewing her, she told the deputy that she needed something from the car, and asked if it would be OK to retrieve it. He told her yes, and she did. Later when we saw the deputy’s report, there was a statement to the effect, “I did not dust for fingerprints because the owner compromised the scene by opening the door.”

    I understand the likelihood of apprehending this type of grab-and-run thief is small, but we felt like there was no intention to pursue the matter at all. Fortunately, the laptop was a district-issued device, and our IT staff was able to deactivate the Windows license on the device so it was of no value to anyone.

  8. Claus

    The person was going to steal nearly $700 from you and have to question whether or not to press charges? Would you have pressed charges if you were mugged and they got away with $700? If you don’t press charges why wouldn’t this person do the same thing again, he got away scot-free the first time.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And that’s why I decided to press. If it was just about me, I wouldn’t care so much — I wasn’t out a dime.

      But it seemed highly likely this person would do this again, and needed to be stopped…


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