Report: Waco-area rent-to-own firms aggressive in pressing criminal charges

Maribel Walker says she didn’t realize renting a living room suite could be a one-way ticket to jail.

When she rented $2,100 worth of furniture from a Bellmead furniture store in April 2015, she was unaware of a unique legal hammer the rental industry has in Texas, allowing stores to file felony theft charges on customers who don’t pay up.

She was unaware that McLennan County was an epicenter of those aggressive practices by the rent-to-own industry, according to a months-long investigation by the nonprofit Texas Tribune and NerdWallet.

She didn’t know her chosen rent-to-own company, Advantage Furniture on Bellmead Drive, was among the most aggressive users of the provision, filing some 60 “theft of service” complaints with the Bellmead Police Department against its customers since 2014, according to the Texas Tribune.

Walker, 37, a single mother of three, didn’t know any of that until she was at the Texas Department of Public Safety office in February trying to get her driver’s license reinstated. She had just gone through a rough patch that included an eviction, a lost job as a school janitor and an arrest for driving without a valid license.

“I thought this was going to be my new beginning,” she told the Waco Tribune-Herald this week. “My life was hard, but I was going to begin again.

“The trooper came up to me and said he needed to speak to me. He said, ‘You’re getting arrested for felony charges.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ … They took me back and sent me to county jail. I stayed there about two days.”

Walker is still awaiting trial after being indicted on a felony theft of service charge for furniture that she has already returned to store. Store officials say some of that furniture was too damaged to salvage. Advantage Furniture officials say the criminal charges were a “last resort” because Walker failed to return or make arrangements to pay off some $2,700 worth of furniture in a two-year period.

A native of Mexico who has been in this country since age 3, Walker is worried she will lose her green card over the charge, creating a crisis for her three American-born children, ages 12 through 20.

She is also worried that a theft of service charge will keep her from getting back a previous occupation working as a fast-food cashier.

“How am I going to get a job where people trust me?” she said. “A felony case really puts a big damper on my life.”

Walker was among several rental customers featured in the Texas Tribune’s investigative report, published online Oct. 27. It showed that while other industries have to use civil remedies and debt collectors to resolve unpaid bills, the rental industry is able to use the criminal justice system to force repayment, thanks to a decades-old law written by the industry’s lobbyists.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican who represents the Waco area, told the Texas Tribune that “the issue merits a rigorous review by the Legislature,” and he compared the practice to debtor’s prisons, which are prohibited by Texas Constitution.

State Reps. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, and Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, also called for a review of the law before the next session. Anderson this week sent a request to the House speaker to put the item on the agenda for the interim committee hearing.

Anderson said criminal charges might be appropriate in the case of someone refusing to return expensive heavy equipment, but probably shouldn’t apply to rent-to-own furniture.

“We certainly shouldn’t use law enforcement for debt collection,” he told the Tribune-Herald. “The police department shouldn’t be involved in that. There shouldn’t be felony charges.”

The investigative report has also alarmed local government and nonprofit officials. Waco Councilman Dillon Meek said he will ask for a staff report on the practice and possibly a Waco City Council discussion. He said he is concerned both about the drain on police resources and the effect on people who are trying to escape poverty.

“For most of the population that would be using these services, a felony charge would be difficult to overcome,” Meek said. “We need to do everything we can to improve the financial security of this community, and that could really be a setback toward reaching that goal.”

Matthew Polk, executive director of the Prosper Waco antipoverty initiative, agreed that filing theft charges in debt collection cases damages economic opportunities.

“Of course we all want to get paid for goods and services,” Polk said. “But there are civil procedures available. To turn all that into potential felony convictions sure doesn’t seem productive from the standpoint of society and our desire to have those people moving out of poverty so they’re working and paying taxes.”

The law in question dates back to 1977, the work of a pair of lobbyists for the rental industry. No one testified against the bill, which was carried by a Houston state senator.

One of the lobbyists, Travis Phillips, now retired, said the rent-to-own industry barely existed at the time, and the bill was more concerned with the equipment rental industry.

“Back in the ’70s, you could rent a $10,000 compressor and never take it back and nothing would happen to you,” Phillips told the Texas Tribune.

Four decades later, rent-to-own companies are using the Texas law far more aggressively than the equipment rental businesses that originally pushed for it.

In McLennan County, for example, rent-to-own disputes made up 98 percent of the theft of service complaints filed with the Waco and Bellmead police departments from 2014 through the first half of 2017, according to offense reports provided to the Texas Tribune and NerdWallet under state freedom of information laws.

There wasn’t a single report of theft of rental equipment services.

The investigative report spotlighted McLennan County, where at least six rent-to-own companies pressed charges against some 400 customers in the past three and a half years, police offense reports show. An analysis of Waco Police Department records shows that more than half of the customers had sent in payments for at least two months.

In this county, 32 of 38 theft of service prosecutions since 2015 have involved rent-to-own customers. By comparison, Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, had zero theft of service cases in that time period involving rent-to-own customers. In Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is located, those customers account for about one in five theft of service cases.

The cost of those theft charges is borne not only by the defendants but the criminal justice system, adding to the burden of police, court-appointed attorneys, jails and courts.

In Bellmead, the volume of rent-to-own cases was so high earlier this year that the police department had to assign an investigator to them to take pressure off uniformed officers, department spokesman Sgt. Kory Martin said. After receiving only two such reports from 2011 to 2013, the department has seen 82 complaints by rent-to-own companies against their customers since 2014.

More than 70 percent of those complaints since 2014 have come from Advantage Furniture.

Rusty Reddell, who started the business in 1994, said the criminal charges are a last resort and affect only a small minority of his customers. He said the store expanded its use of the provision a few years ago because civil remedies weren’t effective.

“We don’t turn them in to the credit agency,” Reddell told the Tribune-Herald. “We used to, but they come in here in the first place because they don’t have good credit.”

He said his firm has won small-claims civil judgments against nonpaying customers, but those judgments are expensive to obtain and difficult to enforce, and customers don’t have to allow access into their homes.

Reddell said the company doesn’t tell customers about the risk of criminal charges “because that’s too negative.”

“One reason we feel like we need to do this is that we don’t want to get word out on the street that if you rent from Advantage and if you don’t pay for it, don’t worry about it,” Reddell said.

He said the company works with customers who get behind on their payments and are willing to return the merchandise. In Maribel Walker’s case, the retail price of the furniture was $2,770, and she made only two payments of a few hundred dollars.

“In a case like Ms. Walker, she was so far past due and kept the merchandise, so the balance was too high,” Reddell said. “Usually we charge it off if they owe $100 or $200. We tried calling her then sending a certified letter. Finally, out of desperation we contacted the officer.”

Walker, who bought furniture from Advantage in the past, said she intended to pay for the furniture in question. But after she lost her job, she got evicted and put the furniture in storage in her brother’s trailer.

“It was my intention to come back and pay,” Walker said. “I was going through so much. I was overwhelmed with everything. I forgot. It was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t even remember I had that furniture, because in my mind it felt like I lost everything. … I didn’t realize the repercussions were going to be what they were.”

She said she never got the certified letter, because she lost her apartment. And she said the company never called her, though Advantage Furniture officials dispute this.

At her attorney’s advice, after her arrest she returned the furniture, some of which was water-damaged.

Advantage Furniture officials said they don’t want Walker to go to prison, but they hope a probation deal can be reached that will include restitution.

Jonathan Sibley, Walker’s court-appointed attorney, said the district attorney’s office has signaled that the case might be reduced to a misdemeanor because Walker returned the furniture, but he is hoping to reach a deal that involves restitution without affecting her criminal record.

He said the theft-of-service law can have unnecessarily harsh consequences.

“It seems like there’s not enough disclosure up front about what you’re getting into,” Sibley said. “No one expects you’re going to buy furniture and have something go wrong and not be able to pay for it, and all of a sudden you’re being arrested for a felony. … No one else can do it. Why is this industry so lucky to be the chosen one that gets to use the police force to get their debts collected? It seems there’s better things we can use our police for.”

At least eight states, including Florida and Texas, have laws that specifically make the theft of rental services a crime, according to the American Rental Association. That’s the trade group for companies that rent out construction equipment, tools and event trappings such as banquet tables and tents.

ARA lobbyists actively promote the adoption of theft-of-service laws around the country, and the association isn’t shy about touting its success at getting new statutes enacted in Idaho, Illinois and Iowa in 2016 and 2017.

They’re just as quick to point out that they have no connection to, or contact with, the rent-to-own industry. Rent-to-own companies are nevertheless fueling many of the prosecutions, and controversy, under the laws ARA has pushed in state capitals.

The irony isn’t lost on the association’s director of state government affairs, Alysia Ryan.

“I would take advantage of statutes in my industry, too,” Ryan said. “I understand that, but we see ourselves as two very different industries. I think we need to work harder to make that differentiation.”

The rent-to-own industry has its own trade group, the Austin-based Association of Progressive Rental Organizations. But the association hasn’t made criminal statutes a priority. Instead, the group has fought off attempts in Congress and in state capitals to introduce new regulations that could limit how much the companies can charge and how they can collect debts.

APRO General Counsel Ed Winn III advises rent-to-own managers to tread carefully in the criminal arena, writing in a recent newsletter that the risks, from bad publicity to malicious prosecution lawsuits, often outweigh the potential rewards.

In an interview with the Texas Tribune, he acknowledged that a handful of rent-to-own businesses go overboard in pursuing cases in which they believe a theft has occurred.

“A few rental dealers prefer playing cops and robbers to making money,” he said.

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