Can You Go to Jail for Cashing a Bad Check?

By Mike Broemmel

Thousands of bad checks are passed every day in locations across the United States. Most people are familiar with the civil consequences they face, such as bank penalty charges, if they write a check that ends up being returned for insufficient funds. The prospect of being subjected to collection action and being sued are also possibilities. Beyond civil penalties that can be imposed and civil actions that can be taken against you, there are instances in which you will face criminal prosecution for writing a bad check. Several factors come into play when it comes to the potential for facing criminal prosecution, but jail time is a possibility for some offenders.

Knowledge

In order to prosecute a bad-check writer, most states require that a person who cashes a bad check have clear knowledge that no funds were or would be available to satisfy the check. Some states have a statutory provision that subjects a check cashier to criminal prosecution and jail time if he reasonably should have known that a check would not clear when presented. Although the check cashier doesn't have actual knowledge of the status of a bank account, if a reasonable person would know that a check will not clear, that individual can face potential criminal liability and jail time.

Misdemeanor

Another factor that comes into play is the amount of the check. In most states, if the amount of the check is $500 or less, the prospect of jail time is not significant. Although criminal prosecution might occur, a person being sent to jail for a check under $500 (provided it is not a recurring problem) is unlikely. Odds are a person will end up either in a diversionary or a probationary program.

Felony

If a person knowingly cashes a worthless check in an amount above a certain amount, that individual runs a real risk of not only criminal prosecution but also a jail sentence in many states. Although there are a variety of factors that do come into play when it comes to the risk of jail time--prior criminal record, for example--the prospect of incarceration is a possibility. In many cases, an imposed jail sentence will be suspended provided the person who cashes a worthless check pays back the amount of money associated with the bad check. If a person satisfies this condition, although a jail sentence is imposed, that individual likely will not have to serve any time.

Record

An individual's prior criminal record is a primary consideration associated with whether a person will face jail time for cashing a bad check. If a person is a first-time bad check writer, it is unlikely that the person will spend time in jail (unless the check is for a significant amount). However, if an individual has a criminal record, particularly one that involves financial-related crimes, a jail sentence (or even time in prison) will be a real possibility.

Likely Consequences

The most likely consequences for a person without a significant criminal record is placement in a what is known as a bad check restitution program. The vast majority of prosecuting attorneys' offices across the United States maintain bad check restitution programs. Through these programs, a person who has written or cashed a bad check will be provided an opportunity to pay off the amount due and owing on the bad check. In addition to paying off the bad check, this type of program normally also requires the person who wrote or cashed a bad check to participate in some sort of financial responsibility education class. The idea is that through some basic education in this regard an individual will have better control over his checking account in the future.

About the Author

Mike Broemmel began writing in 1982. He is an author/lecturer with two novels on the market internationally, "The Shadow Cast" and "The Miller Moth." Broemmel served on the staff of the White House Office of Media Relations. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and political science from Benedictine College and a Juris Doctorate from Washburn University. He also attended Brunel University, London.