Fed-up Library Suing 24 Citizens Over Overdue Materials

Officials Touse Civil Courts, Unlike Last Year's Criminal Prosecutions

July 31, 1991|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff writer

Facing an ever-tightening budget and increasing circulation, libraryofficials have decided to sue 24 county residents who have not returned their overdue materials.

However, unlike three cases that wentto criminal court last year, these cases will be pursued in civil court, said Gail Griffith, the library's assistant director.

"Not all cases are appropriate to refer to the state's attorney,"she said. "We work with the county attorney to determine when a civil suit would be more appropriate."

Patrons will be sued for the value of the materials lost or the return of the items and payment of a$10 maximum fine, said Laurell Taylor, assistant county attorney.

Court costs -- at approximately $15 per case -- will be paid by the losing party, Taylor said.

The total value of the items -- which includes books, videotapes and other audiovisual material -- is $2,468, Griffith said.

The value per patron of the materials still missing ranges from $42 to $260, with an average of $99.

"The thresholdbefore we begin to send notices is $40," Griffith said. "This is a significant amount of material, especially with our resources shrinking."

But unlike the victims of Stephen King's "library policemen" -- characters in his recent novella who haunt and torture people who don't return their books -- these county residents have had plenty of chances to settle their accounts.

And their punishment won't be asharsh.

"What we're really suing for is the return of the materials," Griffith said. "These are materials that the taxpayers have paid for."

When a book is overdue, patrons are sent notices, she said.

After that, the borrowers are contacted at least five more times over a period of about four months, resulting in a registered letter stating charges will be filed.

"We keep very detailed records," Griffith said, adding that notes of who called the patron, when letters were sent out and what the responses were are kept in a file.

In addition, borrowers have an opportunity to pay for the materials if they are lost.

"When we send an overdue notice, we include the dollar amount of the materials in case they are lost," Griffith said. "We even take partial payments over time if the cost is a problem."

Inat least two of the 24 cases the patrons are juveniles, and lawsuitswill be filed against their parents, Griffith said. Up to six morepatrons may be under the age of 18.

Because patrons checked an age range when they applied for a card, library officials are unsure abouttheir exact age. Griffith said librarians are now asking for a date of birth on a child's application to solve the problem.

Civil suits were chosen over criminal trials because the burdenof proof is lighter, Taylor said. Each of the three criminal cases was settled out ofcourt or dismissed for lack of evidence.

"In a criminal case, theperson has to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Taylor said. In a civil case, the prosecutor simply needs enough evidence to show that the defendant's guilt is likely.

Although the prior casesdid not result in convictions, Griffith said she feels those cases -- as well as the current batch -- were worthwhile to pursue in court.

"Apart from the individual cases, people were aware of a need to return their materials in a timely fashion," she said. "Some people who were not to the point of prosecution did come and settle their accounts.

"It made people aware that the materials were useful to other people in the county."

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