Checks were used as a means of payment long before credit cards became popular. To the end, a check is supposed to represent a specific amount of money in the account of the issuer, the person writing the check, that will be transferred to the drawee, the person to whom the check is made out.
When someone writes a check without sufficient funds in their account to cover it, the check is returned for lack of funds. It is termed a bad check, or a "hot" check. The act results in penalties in every state. In Texas, a person who writes a bad check can be prosecuted for a criminal charge, which must be brought within the applicable statute of limitations.
Bad Check Laws in Texas
Anyone writing a check is presumed to know where their bank account is located and whether they have enough money in that account to cover the check they are writing. An individual who knows that they have insufficient funds to cover a check, but writes it anyway in Texas, is committing a crime.
The name of the crime applicable to bad check cases is theft by check. This bad check crime is classified as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the face amount of the check—how much money is involved in the "theft." The crime can be treated as a Class C, B or A misdemeanor, or a first-class felony.
Awareness of Insufficient Funds
In order to be prosecuted for writing a bad check, the person writing it must be aware that the check will not be covered by the bank. They must know that the account against which they wrote the check was no longer open or that the account did not contain sufficient funds to cover it.
Generally, a prosecutor must prove every element of a crime by the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. It is not always easy for a prosecutor to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. If the person writing a check says they were not aware of how little was in the account, it may be difficult to contradict this by hard evidence.
That's why Texas law creates a presumption for bad checks. Where a person obtains goods or services by writing a check on an already closed account, or writing a check on an account where the balance is too low to cover the amount, they are presumed under state law to have done it intentionally and deliberately.
Misdemeanor or Felony Theft by Check
A misdemeanor is a lesser type of Texas criminal charge, punishable by no more than a year in county jail. This is contrasted with the more serious felony charge, punishable by more than a year in state prison. Since writing a bad check is a theft-of-money crime, the severity of the crime comes down to how much was stolen.
Texas law classifies theft by check as a misdemeanor if the amount of the bounced check is less than $1,500. A bad check offense is usually a Class C misdemeanor, but if the check was issued for a court-ordered child support payment, the offense is a Class B misdemeanor.
What if the amount of the bad check was for more than $1,500? In that case, the crime is charged as a felony.
Punishment for Theft by Check in Texas
The criminal penalties for theft by check, as well as the classification of the crime, depends on the amount of the check. The criminal offense will be prosecuted as a misdemeanor if the check amount is under $1,500. But the type of misdemeanor and the potential jail time is dependent on the exact amount:
- Theft of $50 or less: Class C with $500 fine/no jail time.
- Theft of between $50 and $500: Class B Misdemeanor with $2,000 fine/180 days in jail.
- Theft of between $500 and $1,500: Class A Misdemeanor with $4,000 fine/one year county jail time.
Theft of over $1,500 is a felony. The type of felony and criminal sanctions depend on how much over $1,500 was stolen. All check writers convicted of felony offenses face a potential criminal fine of $10,000:
- Theft of $1,500 to $20,000: State jail felony with six months in jail and up to two years prison.
- Theft of $20,000 to $100,00: Third-degree felony with two years to 10 years prison.
- Theft of $100,000 to $200,000: Second-degree felony with two years to 20 years prison.
- Theft of $200,000 and Up: First-degree felony with five years to 99 years/life in prison.
Repayment Precludes Texas Criminal Charges
When a check arrives at a Texas financial institution to be debited, the bank employees determine whether there are sufficient funds in the account to cover the amount. If not, the bank must send a written notice of nonsufficient funds (NSF notice) to the person who wrote the check.
This notice describes the details of the check and demands payment of the amount within a 10-day period. The notice advises the check writer that writing an NSF check is a crime and that legal action will be taken if the recipient fails to comply with the demand for funds.
If the check writer deposits sufficient funds into the account to cover the check within the 10-day window of time, it nullifies the presumption of intentional behavior, and no criminal charges will be brought. Note that this is not the case where the check is written on an account that never existed or is no longer open.
Criminal Statute of Limitations
Statutes of limitations are windows of time in which a civil or criminal case may be brought. Bringing a charge relatively close to the date of the action is considered fair and just in Texas, like in most states.
Bringing a criminal charge relatively swiftly for an alleged crime allows the individual charged better access to evidence and witnesses, than would a charge brought decades after an event.
Texas laws set a window of time during which charges can be filed in court. The amount of time varies depending on the seriousness of the crime charged—it is shorter for misdemeanors and longer for felonies. The most serious crimes, like murder, have no statute of limitations in Texas and can be brought at any time.
Statute of Limitations for Theft by Check
The statute of limitations for theft by check in Texas is two years if the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, five years if it is charged as a felony.
That means that the prosecutor has a time frame of two years in which to charge someone for theft by check if they wrote a bad check for under $1,500, five years if the amount is over $1,500. If prosecutors fail to file a criminal action within that time limit, they lose the right to file at all.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.