April 15, 2016

When should you face jail time for overdue library books?


The Durens, who stand accused of late library books. Image via WXYZ

The Durens, who stand accused of late library books. Image via WXYZ

One of the most reliable bookish forms of non-news is the “library book finally returned…50 years late!” story. Like all space-filler human interest pieces, these stories don’t do anything beyond, to quote the immortal Kent Brockman, “tug at the heart and fog at the mind.” (Though they can sometimes be funny.) But that makes sense; an overdue library book is relatable, and sometimes you just want to take in the journalistic equivalent of Combos.

We’ve discussed how overdue books and fines can stack up and lead to fairly heavy consequences. Most libraries don’t have their own security firm, so they often resort to more traditional contractors of debt and property recovery (if they actually care about recovery). And this is exactly what happened to a Michigan couple when they neglected to return two books to their local library.

Kim Craig reported for WXYZ:

Cathy and Melvin Duren kept forgetting about two books they checked out of the Tecumseh Public Library and failed to return.

Now, the Durens are facing jail time after the Lenawee County Prosecutor charged each of them with “Failure to Return Rental Property.” The couple thinks it’s unfair that they never would have been charged with the misdemeanors, if they had just paid a diversion fee to the Lenawee County Economic Crimes Unit.

The first book, the Dr. Seuss compilation A Hatful Of Seuss, went missing after it was originally checked out in June 2014; the second book, Sam Christer‘s The Rome Prophecy, simply sat around unreturned after being checked out in April 2015. The library sent demand letters to the Durens requesting the returned books or replacement payment, but it was only in December 2015 that their final demand letter threatened criminal action.

In January, they returned The Rome Prophecy, but they couldn’t find the Dr. Seuss book.

The Durens have offered to pay the late fees for both books and the cost to replace the lost book, but now the Economic Crimes Unit of the Lenawee County Prosecutor’s Office was involved.

The unit’s Det. Robert Kellogg left multiple messages on the couple’s voicemail.

Cathy and Melvin describe the tone of the phone calls as bully-like.

By then, it was too late. The Economic Crimes Unit demanded a payment of $105 in “diversion fees” from each of the Durens on top of the late/replacements fees, and the Durens refused to pay the fees. They were subsequently served with arrest warrants and forced to pay $100 each to avoid jail time in advance of their court appearance. The diversion fees go straight into the Economic Crimes Unit’s coffers, and if this is giving you a heebie-jeebie reminder of how court fees serve as a legalized predatory tax on the poor, you’re not alone.

Yes, libraries will often drop any case against patrons once the items are returned, but they don’t control the various fees and charges that accompany farming out the collection to law enforcement. And yes, it’s rare that this process gets to the point of an actual arrest (though, it does happen again and again and again). And yes, libraries have the right to recover taxpayer-funded property.

But no matter how laid-back and reasonable a library may be with its delinquent patrons, a credit reporting agency or law enforcement is going to be much more stringent, with long-lasting financial or legal consequences for anyone who has little capacity to pay endless fees, or whose arrest record is the deciding factor for employment. People should return their library books. They should respond to polite letters requesting they return those books. But who breaks a library card upon a wheel?



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.