Originally created 04/15/04

New unit will tackle problem



WARRENVILLE - The days when thousands of unserved bad check warrants collected dust in the sheriff's office should end with the advent of a new unit in her office, Aiken County Solicitor Barbara Morgan told area merchants Wednesday.

Ms. Morgan, speaking to the Midland Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, said the old way of handling bad checks created headaches for a law enforcement system that didn't have the time or resources to devote to tracking down check bouncers, many of whom included inaccurate information on their bank drafts. The Aiken County Sheriff's Office had a backlog of 8,000 bad check warrants when Sheriff Mike Hunt took office in May, she said.

"They were not high on the priority list and it could be years before they were served," she said. "Law enforcement was frustrated with it because it was clogging the system and there was no central clearinghouse."

Now, instead of merchants applying for multiple warrants from magistrate judges, a worthless-check unit will take up the task of tracking down offending customers and collecting restitution. A $50 service fee on bounced checks funds the new unit, one of four pilot programs in the state, Ms. Morgan said. The one-person unit relies heavily on tracking software to consolidate information on offenders, she said.

"We want to use technology to its maximum capability, something law enforcement hasn't always been good at because we didn't get the funds for information technology," she said.

In the first three months of the program, without much public promotion, the solicitor's office has handled 373 cases, collecting on 144 and taking out 39 arrest warrants. Warrants are applied for only if the offender fails to respond to notification or pay restitution.

"We are finding out we are getting pretty good responses in that regard," Ms. Morgan said.

"We think this is going to make a difference," she said. "That's 373 less people who will clog the system."

The solicitor is looking into hiring another full-time position as demand on the unit grows. The salary would be covered through fees collected and shouldn't cost taxpayers more money, she said.

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or stephen.gurr@augustachronicle.com.