January 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 1 • Page 12
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Counties hire collectors to recover unpaid, decades-old fines
Illinois counties are chasing down unpaid fines from as far back as the mid-80s. Critics say the practice is unfair and counterproductive.
A large number of Illinois counties are employing third-party debt collectors to recover unpaid fines and fees, some of which go back decades. As a result, some people are learning to their chagrin that an individual's liability for fines and fees never expires.
As the Southern Illinoisan reported in November (http://bit.ly/1MvJeyu), 40 counties have hired Credit Collection Partners to assist with the collection of unpaid fines and fees dating back to 1986 or earlier. While many cash-strapped county treasuries could sorely use the recovered funds, some observers say the practice goes beyond the intended purpose of assessing them in the first place - punishing and deterring bad behavior.
According to Southern Illinois University law professor William Schroeder, collecting on extremely old and unpaid penalties can have unfair results. For example, some people may have a defense to the collection claim, such as having already paid the fines. In the case of very old fines, however, this may be extremely difficult to prove. "How many people keep their receipts for years on end?" Schroeder asks.
In cases of mistaken identity, the targets of the collection action may have a hard time proving that they do not actually owe the unpaid fine. Schroeder says uncollected fines and fees should be subject to a statute of repose.
An example reported by the Southern Illinoisan illustrates the problem. Credit Collection Partners recently sought to collect $244.41 for a speeding ticket issued in Alexander County on January 11, 1994. Bridget Harris, who received the collection letter, knew that she and her husband had promptly paid the fine, which was $75 when the ticket was issued.
Harris was amazed that, after 22 years, the county would seek to collect the fine plus an additional $169.41 in fees. Fortunately for her, she located the receipt for the paid ticket in an old bathtub in her barn. Her case has been withdrawn from collections.
Schroeder says that collecting these debts years or decades later is unfair to people's settled expectations. When a fine goes uncollected for a long period, the person fined often assumes nobody cares about it. Moreover, the larger fine-plus-interest sums can up the ante significantly.
And if the purpose of assessing fines is deterrence, there's not much practical value to collecting them years later, Schroeder says. "Collecting a fine for speeding five years after the fact won't cause a person to drive slower" in the meantime, he says.
However, Schroeder says it is important to keep in mind how desperate some counties are for revenue. According to the Southern Illinoisan, Union County in far southern Illinois has recovered more than $110,463 since turning to a third-party debt collector in 2011. Those funds have been split between various county agencies.
Williamson County's State's Attorney, Brandon Zanotti, has attempted to improve the collection of unpaid fines by increasing contact with those who are paying but have fallen behind on their efforts to pay the county - this rather than turning to a debt collector. He told the Southern Illinoisan that judges in Williamson County are not interested in collecting debts more than seven years old.
Schroeder says that collecting old, unpaid fines can grind people down. "It's not a very sensible solution to the problem," he says. He says that attempts to collect larger sums can have a real impact on people, in particular those already living paycheck to paycheck.
It is a difficult balancing act for counties seeking to recover these funds. Some officials, such as Union County State's Attorney Tyler Edmonds, consider it their responsibility to collect fees and fines. Edmonds told the Southern Illinoisan, "In a lot of cases, [hiring a debt collector] is a better option than the threat of people going to jail. We don't want to be imprisoning people for inability to pay."
Schroeder says the Illinois Supreme Court should consider using its rule-making authority to set time limits on the collection of these debts.