Check ordeal leads to lawsuit

Woman was arrested months after repaying Columbia Association

July 11, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Late last year, Beth Reynolds wrote the Columbia Association a $74 check to buy swimsuits for her children.

The check bounced.

She wrote another. It included a $28 bad-check fee.

It cleared.

Yet four months later, Reynolds was led away in handcuffs from her home on a cul-de-sac in Columbia's affluent River Hill Village. Her crime: writing the bad $74 check.

"I was too scared to ask them questions," Reynolds said. "I was humiliated. They handcuffed me, walked me to the car. I wasn't crying. I was just in shock. My neighbors probably thought I was involved in drugs."

Reynolds, 35, is suing the Columbia Association, the homeowners association that collects annual fees from residents and provides services like community swimming pools. She says she wants an apology and $20,000.

"I can't believe in this country your rights could be so easily violated," said Reynolds, whose family pays CA about $500 a year.

Others had problems

Reynolds is not the only person with a CA check problem.

On March 16, the same day a warrant was issued for Reynolds' arrest, at least two other warrants were issued for people who allegedly passed bad checks to CA.

Those warrants, according to computer court records, have not been served.

One of those wanted is Kathy J. Chavers, 44, of River Hill.

Chavers last year wrote a $38 check to CA for her daughter's swim lessons, she said, but it bounced. She quickly repaid the money, she said.

Chavers didn't learn of her arrest warrant until she was contacted by a Sun reporter Friday. She feels lucky that her husband is an attorney and she didn't get led away in handcuffs.

"I'm not leaving the house today," Chavers said. "I cannot believe this is happening."

Chavers and her husband immediately contacted authorities to begin to straighten out the problem.

Chavers' husband, Clayborne, is considering filing a lawsuit against CA for giving his wife a criminal record.

He's asking others who might have bounced CA checks to call the Howard County Police Department to make sure they don't have pending arrest warrants, too.

"I think others should come together and look into the viability of bringing a class-action complaint against the Columbia Association," he said.

"This is the sort of thing that makes you not want to patronize the organization anymore."

Another warrant was issued for a Baltimore County woman who bounced a $102 check, according to court records and a photocopy of the check.

She could not be reached to comment.

Differing accounts

The Columbia Association and Howard County state's attorney's office blamed each other for the problems in Reynolds' case, while agreeing that Reynolds never should have been arrested.

Shelby A. Tucker King, CA's general counsel, said she faxed a letter to the state's attorney's office seven weeks before Reynolds' arrest, asking prosecutors to drop the charges.

King said she called prosecutors after Reynolds was arrested, and she says they confirmed that the letter had arrived.

CA notified the state's attorney's office March 29, King said.

"Mrs. Reynolds was arrested May 16. CA did what it was supposed to do," King said.

King said she was also mystified that warrants would be issued for writing bad checks.

In those cases, judicial officers usually issue a summons -- essentially a letter attached to charging documents -- not a criminal warrant that requires putting a defendant in custody.

Though King says Columbia Association officials acted in time, a state's attorney's official says CA never notified prosecutors that Reynolds had repaid the debt.

"They dropped the ball," said Michael Weal, who heads the state's attorney's office in District Court.

Weal also said that Reynolds should have notified his office of the incorrect arrest warrant.

Tangled events

The other evening, Reynolds sat at her kitchen table, a folder of charging documents, photocopied checks and other letters spread before her.

Sunburned from watching her children at the local swiming pool, Reynolds spoke softly and sometimes fought back tears as she recounted the events that began in September 1998, when she wrote the CA the check for the swimsuits needed for an association-sponsored swim team.

A part-time nurse at Howard County General Hospital, Reynolds had had her paychecks switched to direct deposit. But somehow the paychecks never landed in her account, she says, and three checks that she wrote bounced, including one to CA.

Two companies eventually cashed her checks, Reynolds said. But CA did not resubmit hers. Officials there contacted Reynolds in December, saying she needed to write another check with an additional $28 fee, Reynolds said.

She did so on Jan. 5 and, she said, that one cleared on Jan. 19.

That same day, Reynolds says, CA contacted the state's attorney's office and requested that a criminal complaint be filed against Reynolds for writing the bad $74 check.

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