by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Budget cutbacks have forced government offices to “think outside of the box” to find ways to do more with less. But one office has utilized volunteer hours to dip back into the box.
The Worthless Check Division of the State Attorney’s Office has utilized the office’s undergraduate internship program to help recover over $100,000 in worthless checks since the beginning of August. To date, the internship program has processed over 25,000 cases.
“Business owners are shocked that we are returning funds from 2-3 years ago,” said Michael Gropper, coordinator of the undergraduate internship program at the State Attorney’s Office. “They are happily surprised.”
The program started assisting with processing worthless checks in the summer and began processing capias, an order for an arrest, from 2000. The interns worked up the timeline and are now on worthless checks from 2004.
“The program has been a great help,” said Richard Mette, director of the Worthless Checks Division. “Last year we had 15 employees on staff to research worthless checks, but now we have five employees and a group of volunteers for the same amount of work.”
Those volunteers were part of the internship program which was designed to provide undergraduate students who may be considering a legal career with an opportunity to see the practice of law in a real-life setting. The program offers students the experiences of the first appearance/bail setting process, sitting in on criminal and civil trials and shadowing an attorney from the State Attorney’s Office. Involvement with the worthless checks division is one of the hands-on projects students are involved in during the program. The SAO hosted 19 undergrads during the summer from schools including the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, Florida State University, the University of Florida, North Carolina State University, Auburn University and Brown University. A total of 28 students have worked on the worthless checks project since it was introduced to the internship program and they have donated nearly 3,000 hours to the project.
“It’s been very informative. You see a side of the process you don’t normally get to see,” said Katie Price, a senior at UNF with a double major in political science and english. “It helped me decide that I really want to go to law school and it also taught me not to write a bad check.”
Involvement in the worthless checks division includes investigating the current location of defendants and contacting them through correspondence and phone conversations, if available.
“Publix and Winn-Dixie are our biggest customers,” said Gropper. “We get a lot of worthless checks for $76 because the stores will only cash checks up to $75, plus the $1 check cashing fee.”
Gropper was an intern during the summer and participated in the worthless check division. The office was so impressed with his work that they hired him as the program coordinator when the former coordinator left for law school.
Gropper is a senior at UNF and was presented with a dilemma this summer. He had enrolled at UNF for the opportunity to play baseball as a walk-on, but when it came to the decision to play baseball or join the internship program, he decided to pursue what he thought may be his career path.
“I didn’t see myself playing in Yankee Stadium, so I chose the internship,” said Gropper. “I couldn’t be happier with what I am doing.”
Receiving a call from one of the interns may be a shock to some, but others are glad to find out about the matter before a police officer surprised them with the news.
“We talk to a lot of people who don’t know there is a warrant out for their arrest,” said Gropper. “They may have filed a check and moved. They may have closed an account and forgotten about that last check. We do our best to let them know what they can do to correct the situation.”