Tecumseh, MI — Melvin and Cathy Duren of Tecumseh, Michigan recently had warrants issued for their arrest — over an overdue library book. In July of 2014, the couple’s son used their library card to borrow A Hatful of Seuss from the Tecumseh District Library. In April 2015, Cathy Duren borrowed The Rome Prophecy. The family forgot to return both books.
After receiving four notices from the library asking them to return the books and pay the resulting late fees, the Duren family did indeed return The Rome Prophecy. However, they did not return A Hatful of Seuss, as their son had lost it.
Because the Durens did not return the Dr. Seuss book, the library contacted the Economic Crimes Unit (ECU) of the Lenawee County Prosecutor’s Office. A detective by the name of Robert Kellogg became involved, demanding the family pay the library late fees; the amount owed has not been disclosed. However, local reporting by The Tecumseh Herald found that between 2013 and 2014, library patrons had a total of 248 overdue items, and those overdue items generated $3,061 in late fees. That equals, on average, around $12 in fees per item. The actual amount the Durens owed to the library remains unknown, but the Dr. Seuss book can be acquired on Amazon for as little as 63 cents.
The Durens were also required to pay $105 each for a “diversion fee” to avoid prosecution. However, Cathy Duren claims she had already offered to pay the library their unspecified late fee, as well as the cost of replacing the Dr. Seuss book. She further claims her payment was refused after she and her husband declined to pay the $105 diversion fee.
This triggered a calamitous set of events in which the Tecumseh Police Department responded to the Duren family home to inform Melvin and Cathy there were warrants out for their arrest. The police did not take the Durens into custody, but rather informed them they had to turn themselves in. The Durens complied and went to the Tecumseh Police Department, where they paid $100 each in bond. Had they not paid the bond, they would have been kept in the local jail like common criminals.
Cathy Duren told a local television news reporter she believes the $105 diversion fee is “extortion.” Melvin Duren echoed her sentiments, stating, “I don’t think we should have never been held for a crime we didn’t commit.”
The director of the Tecumseh District Library, Gayle Hazelbaker, is content with the results of the prosecutor office’s action. She explained the library’s policy:
“The procedure for patrons who don’t return missing books is lengthy and offers plenty of room to fix the issue. Patrons will receive a letter or email after an item is 14 days overdue. After an item is 28 days overdue, the library will send out a second letter. When it has been 60 days after the second notice, patrons will receive a third letter. Patrons have 10 days to respond to the third letter before the library will send out a final certified letter stating that the patron has 10 days to come into the library and speak with the staff. If no contact is made, the case gets turned over to the ECU. After we report it to the ECU, our hands are tied.”
Hazelbaker went on to say, “Unfortunately, our losses were so huge until the ECU program became available. As good stewards of the tax dollar, we need them to investigate.”
Such an authoritarian statement from a library director is concerning, so let’s examine her logic. The average salary of a police officer in the United States is $54,000 a year, according to The Houston Chronicle. Assuming officers work a 40 hour work week, 52 weeks a year (they don’t), that breaks down to $24 per hour.
A few officers were sent to the Duren home, and the ordeal took several hours to settle; that’s roughly three officers at $24 an hour, for at least three hours, at a minimum cost of $216 to the taxpayer for a $12 fine and a 63 cent book. The ECU is, in fact, not saving the taxpayer money — it is exacerbating the costs. Even if the Durens owed $216, using the police to break dead even on the library budget is an irresponsible — and more importantly, dangerous use of resources. This is, of course, not taking into account the costs of the ECU’s investigation before the Tecumseh Police Department became involved.
The action of using police officers to act as collectors of late library books and fines also removes the capacity of law enforcement to respond to other concerns of citizens, which are likely to be far more pressing than a missing Dr. Seuss book.
This scenario could have been settled in a more amiable manner — for example, through a collection agency; after all, there is no dispute the Durens owed the library money.
And what if the Durens had refused to comply with police? Would they have been assaulted? Would a tragedy have struck over a library book?
If policies like these continue, just how long will it be until an irreversible tragedy does indeed transpire?
The Tecumseh District Library can be reached by telephone at 517-423-2238.
* * *