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Georgia’s Criminal Warrant Application Procedure and Theft By Conversion – Creating a Modern Day Debtor’s Prison

              As a practicing criminal defense attorney, I represent clients frequently in warrant application hearings. Georgia’s criminal warrant application process is quite odd – any person or corporation can pay a small fee and file a criminal warrant application against any other person. A criminal warrant application hearing is then held by a Magistrate Judge in that particular county. If the Judge finds probable cause that a criminal action took place, then a criminal warrant is taken out against the accused and they wind up intertwined in the criminal justice system.

                Normally this system works well where the police decline to bring charges and a private citizen wants their proverbial “day in court.” However, where the system is really abused is when the criminal action alleged by rental and finance companies is: Theft by Conversion under O.C.G.A. §16-8-4. In this scenario, a rental or finance company is essentially looking for civil restitution, but they use the criminal justice system to get the civil restitution results that they want. What better way to get your money or the product back than the threat of going to jail?

                Here is a typical example: A furniture and electronic rental company contracts with the accused to rent, say, a big screen television. The accused takes the furniture home, and something life-shattering happens to them, whether it is a hospital visit or going to jail for something unrelated. The accused proceeds to get evicted, and all of their possessions are lost. The accused can’t even pay for housing at this point, much less the rental payments they owe. The rental company then gives the accused a warning, and after not making payments for several months, the rental company files a criminal warrant application.

                Interestingly, the rental company is not required to give any actual notice to the accused; they merely have to give notice to the last known address of the accused. This especially presents a problem with the eviction case study, as the last known address of the accused is not the address they currently live at. The rental company knows how to game this system, and many people do not show up to the warrant application hearing. If the accused does not show up, the Judge typically grants the rental company’s request for a warrant.

                The problem with using O.C.G.A. §16-8-4 is that this statute requires that the accused “knowingly converts the funds or property to his own use in violation of the agreement or legal obligation.” Intent to deprive is thus the requirement. There are certainly situations where an accused rented property, sells that property, and then pockets the cash. However, in many cases, the rental company cannot show this intent, and relies on the fact that a large percentage of persons accused in these situations do not show up, either through lack of actual notice or otherwise.

                Do yourself a favor and do not enter into contracts with companies that will bring criminal warrant applications to enforce a civil dispute, i.e. rent to own places.

Gregory Clement