One of the types of cases that bothered me tremendously when I was a Prosecutor and continues to bother me as a Defense Attorney is what are most commonly known as the Rent-A-Center cases that pop up regularly in court.
The scenario is simple: Someone who can't afford some of the furnishings and/or appliances that they would like for their home goes to Rent-A-Center who allows them to rent said appliance for a weekly or monthly fee. The customer signs a CONTRACT and then exits the store with the merchandise. After paying on it for a bit, the payments stop coming in and Rent-A-Center files theft charges on the person who entered into the contract.
Now, before I dive off into this topic, please understand me. I'm not saying that Rent-A-Center (and similar companies) aren't entitled to be paid for what they contracted for and/or they should get their leased merchandise back.
But, it seems to me that Rent-A-Center cases approach a very fine line in the difference between criminal law and civil law, and the Harris County District Attorney's Office seems to be getting used as a de facto collection agency in the process.
Here's a couple of things for your consideration:
#1 - I'm not trying to be judgmental here, but most of the clientele at Rent-A-Center are usually hurting financially. Hurting VERY BADLY financially, actually. yet, this does not in anyway dissuade companies like Rent-A-Center from letting these folks walk out the door with items you like they just won the Showcase on the Price is Right. Things from king size beds to 50 inch flat screen TVs are given to people with worse credit ratings than M.C. Hammer.
#2 - The folks that rent these items are often evicted or move because they can't afford a place to stay, and who knows what becomes of the items they got from Rent-A-Center.
#3 - in most Rent-A-Center cases, there are several payments made on the property before they stop coming in.
So, here's where I get confused.
Under Section 31.03 of the Texas Penal Code, dealing with Theft, it reads: "A person commits an offense if he unlawfully appropriates property with int to deprive the owner of property."
To some, that would mean that at the time the customer took possession of the rental property that they knew they would never make the payments.
Otherwise, we aren't talking about a theft case.
We're talking about a breach of contract.
What's the difference?
You can't go to prison for a breach of contract.
Look at it this way, if you default on payments of your house, you can get your house foreclosed on, but you don't get taken to jail, do you?
The response to this from those who support the notion of filing criminal theft charges against people on these Rent-A-Center cases are that Rent-A-Center will send out demand letters for the return of the property and only then will the D.A.'s Office accept charges.
But, as I point out above, in so many of these cases, the Renter of the property has been evicted or moved on and they never receive those notices.
But to the D.A.'s Office, that doesn't really matter. As long as Rent-A-Center bothered to send the letter to the last-known address, then they have done all they need to.
Theft charges are filed.
To me, it just seems that these are (more often than not) a breach of contract where Rent-A-Center needs to sue for return of the property. But the reality of that situation is that they would never get their money that way, would they? How do you get blood from a turnip?
It's far easier to call the police and file theft charges and let the District Attorney's Office threaten the freedom of someone until Rent-A-Center gets their merchandise back and all the back rent they are owed, isn't it?
Here's a thought:
Maybe Rent-A-Center shouldn't be renting big screen TVs to people they know can't afford them.
And if Rent-A-Center doesn't want to stop doing that, then maybe they should clean up their own messes instead of wasting taxpayer money by using the police and the District Attorney's Office as their personal collection agency.