The DA’s office began sending the letters out last year, according to District Attorney Matt Ballard, though he said the office began to ramp up the process within the last six months.
“Within the last six months we’ve been really focusing on it and trying to get the money back for this merchant.”
That merchant, Ballard said, is Super Video, a store that resides within a Claremore Warehouse Market.
Those who receive the letter for their allegedly stolen rentals are warned that ignoring the letter will result in an arrest. Ballard said some warrants had been issued, though to his knowledge no one has been arrested for not returning their rentals. The crime would be a misdemeanor.
The letter also outlines the fees: The store gets $19.07 recompense for the physical copy of the movie plus $25 in late fees.
The district attorney’s office gets $174.
“This notification is to advise you that a warrant has been prepared and will be issued concerning a criminal charge of failure to return rental property,” the letter states.
It advises people who’ve received the letter to pay their fees and charges “in full” to the Rogers County DA’s Office Restitution and Diversion Program in order to avoid jail time.
“Only MONEY ORDERS OR CASHIER’S CHECKS wil be accepted.
“Remember, ignoring this letter will cause you to go to jail.”
The Restitution and Diversion Program, referred to in the letter as RAD, falls under an Oklahoma Statute that allows DA’s offices across the state to “divert criminal complaints involving property crimes from criminal court and to monitor restitution payments.”
***Matt Plum received his letter in May. It said that he had five movies he had failed to return and thus owed the store $220.35, and the DA’s office $870. Plum said he never paid his fine, though he said his father might have paid it on his behalf.
Tulsa television station KTUL interviewed a man earlier this week who rented “Ted,” a comedy starring Mark Wahlberg, in 2014, then became homeless and never returned the movie. The man, Lonnie Perry, was fined $218.07 and also threatened with jail time, though a community member paid the bill on Perry’s behalf.
Footing the bill for everyone else who owes for their late movies would be extremely expensive: Michelle Lowry, a spokeswoman for the DA’s office, estimated there could be as many as 650 unaccounted for rentals the DA’s office is trying to recover money for. At $218.07 per movie, the total bill would be $141,745.50.
If every bill was repaid, Super Video would stand to make $28,645.50. The DA’s office would clear $113,100.
Lowry said that former District Attorney Janice Steidley used to go after stolen rentals, though she stopped and no one at the office remembers why. Ballard said that when he was elected in 2014, he wanted to begin seeking restitution again, though it took nearly three years to begin the process because of manpower issues.
“It’s been really successful,” Ballard said of the letters, noting that many people have paid their bills and that the video store has been happy to see the proceeds.
“Most people acknowledge that they have the movie and they didn’t return it, and they pay the fee and move on,” he said.
The program is structured similarly to the way DA’s offices across the state handle bogus checks, Ballard said. District Attorney’s every year submit their proposed budget to the Governor, who then funds about half of that budget. The other half is generated through different ways, like DA’s probation costs, where an offender is found guilty but avoids prison by agreeing to check in with the DA’s office every month and pay them a fee.
And there are things like bogus check programs and late movie fees. As check-writing has dwindled, that well has run dry. So it is with video rental stores. As streaming and Redbox kiosks have become more popular, the vast majority of rental stores — behemoths like Blockbuster or Hollywood video — have gone extinct.
The Claremore Super Video represents the only merchant Ballard is attempting to collect for, he said. All the others are either gone or are corporate-owned and rely on collection agencies to recoup late fees.
While the letters sent from Ballard’s office present a dire threat of imprisonment, the state law Ballard’s office is using to collect their chunk of the $218.07 is focused on keeping low-level offenders out of jail.
“(The letters) are designed to get people’s attention,” he said. “Fortunately we’ve been able to do this without incarcerating anyone, and get the money for the merchant to make them whole and avoid a criminal case. We could technically file a criminal case on all these, but it’s in no one’s best interest.”
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