Just before dawn Monday, 28 district attorney's office investigators fanned out across the San Gabriel Valley in a sweep targeting 200 bad-check writers.
By mid-afternoon, they had apprehended 13 of the perpetrators--people who had written rubber documents for less than $200 and ignored at least three notices to pay up. They were booked at the West Covina police station, then taken to nearby Citrus Municipal Court for arraignment.
Investigators were scheduled to continue the sweep today.
In spite of the small catch, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner used the sweep to publicize his announcement that the campaign to go after bad-check writers will expand to include the city of Los Angeles. Up until now, the effort to track pushers of bad paper had been limited to the San Gabriel Valley.
One of those arrested Monday was a mother of three, whose husband conceded that she had passed a bad check to buy $40 worth of groceries.
"It's the economy," said the husband, who did not want his name published. "She was going through a divorce (from her previous husband). She wrote the bad checks for food."
The husband was carrying one baby and had in tow two little girls from his wife's previous marriage. The man, who works at a warehouse, said he will have to bail his wife out of jail with $250 they had set aside for their December rent.
"With what I make and what she gets for child support, our bills are too heavy," he said.
County investigators, however, said that none of Monday's arrest warrants named anyone who had written only one bad check, even though the program allows such arrests. It could not be immediately determined how many bad checks the woman had penned before being arrested.
Reiner, who has announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, said he did not think too much emphasis was being placed on a crime that might involve such small amounts of money.
"These persons knew when they were writing the bad check that they were committing a crime," he said.
While Reiner acknowledged that 13 arrests by a staff of 28 armed with 200 warrants may appear out of proportion to the crime, he said the program's budget shows that it is paying for itself. At the news conference, Reiner also commented on the impact that such a seemingly harmless crime has on area merchants.
"Merchants lose more money through bad-check writers than they do from commercial burglaries," Reiner said. "Most of these are checks for very small amounts, usually $100 or less, and most for $25 and $50."
The 3-year-old pilot program has recovered $1.5 million from the 23 cities and unincorporated areas of the San Gabriel Valley, Reiner said.
Under the program, area merchants can file a claim with the district attorney's office for bad checks they receive for $25 or more. They are then required to send the check writer two letters seeking payment.
If the letters are ignored, the district attorney's office sends a letter to the check writer telling the person that he or she must repay the full value of the check, and pay a $25 administrative fee to the county, and attend special financial responsibility classes.
If the bad-check writer ignores that letter, an arrest warrant is issued.
"The message is, if you get a letter from the district attorney, you should take that letter very seriously," Reiner said. "What we are doing today is putting teeth in the program."
Reiner said "hundreds of millions of dollars" are lost each year by area merchants through bad checks, although he said he did not have an exact figure.
During the pilot program, Reiner's office has received about 3,300 bad-check claims a month from merchants, for an average amount of $100. But the program so far has included only about a third of the county, noted Capt. Ed Aleks, a district attorney's office investigator.
In the past, the small amount of each bounced check has made the matter too expensive to prosecute. But now, because a $25 administrative fee is charged to the bad-check writer, in addition to a $40 fee for the bad-check school, the enforcement program is totally self-sufficient, Reiner said.