Can You Go to Jail For Not Returning a Library Book?

Many library books end up left behind when due dates pass – in cars, homes or piles of to-be-read fiction – never being returned by their due dates. Some never make it back!

Copperas Cove, Texas police were called to Jory Enck’s house for an unrelated disturbance and discovered that he had an arrest warrant out for him for failing to return a GED study guide that became overdue three years prior.

Table of Contents

Theft

Stolen books from libraries is illegal, and anyone found doing so can face criminal charges for theft.

Most libraries prioritize protecting their collection from loss and theft while simultaneously encouraging people to return their books on time for others to read them. If a book is not returned by its due date, libraries typically charge a daily fine rate; each day that passes means more money owed by its borrower.

If a patron continues to fail to return library books after fines have been assessed, libraries may issue notice by mail or email warning them that if they do not return them they will be reported to law enforcement if not returned within a certain amount of time. Some libraries even go as far as calling their local police department or sheriff’s office in order to have them arrested for book theft.

However, smaller libraries with tight budgets are taking steps away from punitive approaches toward more collaborative ones. The Charlotte Library in Michigan now calls or texts patrons who have overdue items when they reach two weeks late and then again at one month and three months late to remind them about them.

Accounts that fail to respond may have their accounts blocked from checking out more materials, and after six weeks they may work with a debt collector in an effort to return the overdue items.

Athens-Limestone, Alabama has recently begun enforcing an obscure local law allowing the library to fine or jail city residents who fail to return their overdue library books on time. Their aim is to recoup a total of around $200,000 worth of overdue book fees through this legal move.

Sanders claims she never received notices from the library regarding her overdue books because of her frequent address changes after fleeing an abusive relationship, moving numerous times before finally going into shelter for domestic violence victims. Sanders was unaware of their presence until one of her friends noticed them during a house cleaning. They included “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein and “Night” by Holocaust novelist Elie Wiesel.

Fines

Un library patron who fails to return an item by its due date may face a fine for that item, typically equaling its cost plus processing fee. Some libraries have policies in place allowing patrons to pay a reduced fine in cases when damaged books cannot be recovered from library shelves.

Some public libraries have decided to do away with overdue fines altogether, recognizing their detrimental effect on low-income library cardholders who stand to benefit most from access to books and resources in their collection for free. A recent study also confirmed this finding. An overdue fine penalty has proven an impediment to library use among people living below poverty lines.

Unpaid fines owed by library patrons may be reported to credit reference agencies, potentially harming their chances of receiving future credit cards and loans; however, libraries generally aren’t interested in taking legal action to collect overdue fines or report them.

Michigan mom who was arrested for failing to return two children’s books two years overdue generated some heated online commentary, but libraries often use fines as an incentive for library users to return borrowed materials on time. Copperas Cove, Texas even has an ordinance which permits fines or jailing for library patrons who don’t return items after notice has been given.

Library fines should ultimately serve to get materials back in good condition for others to use and enjoy. Libraries should offer exceptions for patrons unable to afford the fine, while entirely eliminating fines can encourage an attitude of laziness when returning materials – why bother remembering their due dates when nothing will cost me anything?

If a patron has repeatedly been late returning their library books, it would likely be wise for the library to reach out and set up a payment plan with him or her. Furthermore, staff needs to know which books each patron has out so they can monitor them accordingly.

Arrest Warrants

When someone checks out a library book and fails to return it by its due date, he or she may incur some type of fine. If that person continues not returning books as promised, their librarian may report them to police who then may pursue criminal charges against the person concerned; should this occur an arrest warrant may then be issued against that individual if caught.

Library fines can sometimes become excessive, however some libraries will limit the fine to an acceptable amount in order to encourage patrons to return overdue books as quickly as possible. Furthermore, some libraries will waive all or part of a fine entirely if contacted and explained why the book has been overdue.

Melinda Sanders Jones of Michigan was charged with felony theft after failing to return two library books she checked out over one year prior. Jones learned she had an arrest warrant when she attempted to use printers at her local library but was denied due to overdue books, as reported by CNN affiliate WILX. Jones explained she hadn’t received notice of the late fees totaling $138 as she frequently moved addresses due to an abusive relationship and once lived in shelter for domestic violence victims.

Charlotte, Michigan resident Ashley was taken aback when she learned she could face up to 93 days in jail for failing to return the books on time. She expected an email or letter informing her of any late fees but never did; only discovering them on her son’s bookshelves after being blocked from using printers at the library.

Long overdue library books may make an unexpected return, such as was seen at Maryland’s Silver Spring library when an illustrated copy of “The Postman,” first checked out in 1946, was returned with an accompanying letter explaining its lengthy delay by one of their former patrons.

Jail Time

As a child, you likely learned the value of returning library books on time. Failing to do so could result in fines being levied against you; depending on the severity of the offense committed against a library book, this may even lead to jail time being served if returned late; otherwise a lesser punishment may include probation.

Libraries have made headlines when people were arrested for failing to return books in 2007. One such story involved a 22-year-old who failed to return a study guide that he checked out from one library in 2007. Police went to his apartment and discovered the book. They arrested him before issuing him a $200 bond release offer with an order to return the study guide as soon as possible.

When failing to return library books on time, a librarian will typically send a notice via text or email. If no response is given within five days of this warning, a certified letter will be sent informing you that they haven’t been returned; should this still not prompt any action, the case will be submitted to the local economic crimes unit where their sentencing may depend upon several factors including cost of the books as well as your criminal history record.

If convicted of library crimes, the maximum jail term can be 30 days; however, this could be reduced depending on other aspects of your life such as participating in self-improvement programs or working to build job skills. Furthermore, you may earn good behavior credits by returning books on time or engaging in other activities.

Many people do not realize they can actually go to jail for violating library book policy; many even think it is just a joke. Melinda Sanders Jones of Michigan may face up to 93 days in jail after failing to return two overdue books to Charlotte community library when asked in December, according to WILX. At first she thought they had already been returned; later however she saw them sitting on her bookshelf at home and realized she hadn’t.