Overdue charges

Margie Chestnut doesn't look like your average felon.
With her long, scraggly gray locks smoothed back in a paisley scarf, her soft yellow cotton sweater, and her oversized, owlish glasses, the 63-year-old Chestnut looks more like a grandma than the prototypical grifter. Indeed, as she sits at a plastic-covered table in Barbec's diner, the only clue that the 97-pound Chestnut has just been sprung from jail is her appetite.

"They gave me bologna sandwiches," Chestnut explains, plowing into Monday's chicken-and-rice lunch special. Four feet away, dragging on a Marlboro Light, Chestnut's daughter Audrey Helms listens to her mom spin the tale of her 10-day stay on the taxpayers' tab. Every now and then, though, Helms can't resist jumping in to offer her perspective.

"I didn't know Mom was [in jail] till she called me," Helms interjects. "That judge really threw the book at her."

In fact, Mom might still be dining on bologna, had her court-appointed lawyer, Liz Miller, not persuaded Judge Mark Nancarrow to reduce her $15,000 bail to a more manageable $2,500.

Her crime: failure to return a rented paint sprayer in a timely fashion, causing Chestnut to rack up $1,552 in rental charges she could not pay. According to a little-noticed provision of the Texas Penal Code, this constitutes theft of service, a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in the pen.

If this seems a bit Dickensian, Georgia Stinson, manager of Dal-Tex Rentals in Mesquite, disagrees. It was Stinson who rented Chestnut the paint sprayer. "It's theft," she insists, by turns friendly and extremely suspicious. "They're stealing money from rental companies. It's a big problem."

Think debtor's prison has gone the way of thumbscrews and the rack? Think again. It exists--especially for people like Margie Chestnut.

The problem, of course, is intent.
Since we like to fancy ourselves humane and enlightened, we don't put poor people in jail for being poor. Neither do we cage the merely negligent, the late-videotape or overdue-library-book renter.

But the difference between being poor and being negligent and being a criminal is sometimes paper-thin. Take the facts of Chestnut's alleged crime, as recounted in a Mesquite police officer's affidavit:

"On 7-16-97 the suspect Margie Chestnut (aka Helms) rented an electric airless spray rig from Dal-Tex Rentals located at 910 N. Beltline. The rental fee for one day was to be $58.00...One days [sic] rental, tax, ins. and a $40 deposit was paid by suspect. When property was not returned the suspect advised [Ms.] Stinson (mgr.) that they would return equipment in four weeks."

Chestnut, who says she's been a painting, roofing, and repair contractor since 1960, claims she rented the rig for a painting job. "The heat was so bad, we couldn't work the whole day," she explains. "So we called them back and asked if we could change to a weekly rate. A few days later, we changed to monthly. The rental was going to be $640.

"I had gotten sick after the second week," Chestnut continues. "It just kept getting worse and worse." Chestnut says she has been in bad health for some time, suffering from a variety of ailments: ulcers, debilitating migraines, various colds, and infections. But since she is indigent and without health insurance, she says, she relies on the county hospital and over-the-counter medications. "I lost 30 pounds last summer," says the fragile-looking Chestnut, blue eyes blinking through huge frames.

The way Chestnut tells it, if it weren't for bad luck she'd have no luck at all. She's had pneumonia. She's been evicted from two different apartments. She's without transportation, having had her Chevy van repossessed. And that's just since the beginning of this year.

According to Dallas County records, she's been star-crossed for some time. She's floated a few bad checks. She's been sued civilly a few times, for debts and misrepresentations. And in 1994, she was charged with theft over $200 and under $750 after she allegedly took some paint and a $500 check to paint a dentist's office and then failed to appear. According to the affidavit in that one, "detective S.M. Haines of the Dallas Police Department...called the suspect. The suspect gave some excuse as to why she had kept the complainant's property...[and] gave Detective Haines a false date of birth. Detective Haines ran the driver's license the suspect used to cash the check...It was discovered the suspect had been arrested several years ago in Tampa, Florida, and was currently wanted by Dallas Sheriff's Office and the Arlington Police Department." (It is unclear what the Florida arrest was about, although Chestnut says she was set up. The Arlington warrant concerned an alleged theft.)

In 1996 Chestnut was found not guilty in the Dallas theft rap--the one from the dentist's complaint. She wasn't so lucky in the Arlington theft case, for which she's currently on probation.

"That was a job for some people in Arlington who needed a roof," she explains. "I'd done work for them before. We signed a contract, and then got three days of rain. Then my daughter fell and broke her back in California. I went out there to take care of her, and gave the money to my brother to do the job. He took the money and went to Oklahoma. The roof never got put on.

"I shouldn't have pled to that one," she continues. "I could have beat it. But...my lawyer, he scared the livin' daylights out of me. He charged me $13,000 and didn't do nothin'."

"He squeezed every bit of money he could out of her and then pled her," pipes in Audrey, who seems to have mended well.

When it came time to return Dal-Tex's spraying equipment, the fates were still frowning on Chestnut.

"I couldn't bring it back," she explains. "I didn't have the money. And I couldn't load it by myself. Eventually Audrey came by and took it back for me. She told them, 'As soon as she gets well, she'll work something out to get you paid.'"

"I heard that one too," says Stinson. "Which excuse do you want? She said her mom was in the hospital. Then her daughter's in the hospital. She's sick. She's out of town. She's still using it. Numerous times she was called, and wouldn't return the equipment. Her daughter returned it eventually, and said she'd be in the next day. She never came in."

If Stinson seems a bit suspicious, it may be because she's heard it all before. "We've had people rent stuff and go direct from here to the pawnshop," she explains. (The $2,000 rig Chestnut rented, she says, would bring about $300 at a pawnshop.)

"It's a big problem," she continues, explaining why it should be a crime rather than a matter for small claims court. "For years, until we got this statute, we didn't have any recourse," Stinson continues. "You can sue 'em civilly, but what're you going to get out of these guys?"

As a result of lobbying by the Texas Rental Association, an organization of merchants like Stinson, in 1991 a provision was added to the Texas Penal Code. It provides that criminal intent to avoid paying for rented equipment is presumed if you don't pay up within 10 days of receiving a written demand.

In other words, prosecutors no longer have to prove criminal intent--in many cases, the sole difference between being merely being poor or unlucky and being in jail.

"This way, as part of the sentencing, you get restitution," Stinson explains.

Which is exactly the problem.
"The D.A.'s in essence acting as a collection agency," charges Liz Miller, Chestnut's new court-appointed lawyer. "I mean, we're putting people in debtor's prison."

And at a not-inconsiderable cost to the county's taxpayers. According to county officials, Ms. Chestnut's stay cost about $385 million

When asked whether failure to pay overdue rent should be a crime, everyone tends to stand on semantics. "It's a crime," insists Sgt. Joel Martin of the Mesquite Police Department, which filed the complaint against Chestnut. "It's just like someone walking a check at a restaurant. They could have rented the property out to someone else."

Maybe--although, on the day of our visit, Stinson had a half-dozen sprayers standing idle in the shed. Even if true, though, this goes to whether there is a victim, not whether this should be a crime. Is Mesquite using the statute on, say, overdue Blockbuster customers?

In response, Martin laughs nervously. "I can pretty much tell you that there's something else--some indicia of intent here. I wouldn't say there's a whole bunch of these filed. But on the other hand, if someone comes to us [with a case] and it fits the elements, we have to file."

Though the constitutionality of this presumption-of-intent provision has never been tested, you may want to return those videotapes on time.

And if the law is spooking those of us on the lam from the public library, it doesn't seem to have slowed Chestnut much. Unknown to Miller, her client has another case that's about to go before the grand jury. Last February, Dallas police reports show that a 32-year-old Dallas resident named Scott Adams called police a number of times claiming he'd rented a U-Haul to help a "friend" move, but that the friend had absconded with the truck.

You guessed it--the friend was none other than Margie Chestnut.
The story varies depending on whom you talk with. According to Chestnut and her daughter, Adams answered Chestnut's ad in the paper for help driving her around. But after renting a U-Haul and paying cash--cash that Chestnut says she gave Adams--Chestnut drove away with the truck.

Adams told police he rented the truck to move himself, and that Chestnut just asked if she could borrow it. He also says that when she drove it away, it was filled with furniture he had inherited from a relative.

Chestnut, in turn, says the furniture is hers, inherited from her recently deceased mother. Both she and Audrey believe that Adams had intended to rip her off.

U-Haul recovered its truck from the motel parking lot where Chestnut and her daughter were staying. It doesn't care whose furniture was inside.

"I think the detective is really scratching his head over this one," says Victoria Eiker, a spokeswoman for the Dallas Police Department. "Both of them claim to have inherited the furniture, but neither has any proof. I think we're just going to let the grand jury sort this one out."

"Isn't it something?" giggles Chestnut, before bumming a ride from Barbec's to her bondsman's office off Stemmons freeway.

"I guess I need to go with her everywhere she goes," declares Audrey Helms. "Thanks for the ride. You've done your good deed for the day.


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