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Does the punishment fit the crime? 

Hot Springs company files dozens of felonies over cable TV boxes.

click to enlarge AVOIDING A PENALTY: A man returns a cable box to Resort Cable in Hot Springs.
  • AVOIDING A PENALTY: A man returns a cable box to Resort Cable in Hot Springs.

Robert Sterling says he was a good customer to Resort Cable in Hot Springs, and had been for over 15 years. These days, however, he said he'll never use the company again after getting cuffed, fingerprinted and charged with a class C felony over what he insists is a misunderstanding over the return of a cable box.

An official with Resort Cable — part of WEHCO Media, which is headed by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman — said the company files charges that lead to around two dozen such felony warrants every month.

An Army vet who works as a commercial art consultant, Sterling said he's always kept a top-tier package with Resort, plus high-speed cable Internet when it came along. His bill routinely totaled upwards of $100 a month. Resort has been good to him in the past, too. In 2006, while his condo was being renovated, he called Resort Cable and said that he'd be moving temporarily, and that he wanted to suspend his cable service and keep the box to be re-installed when he moved back in. The company agreed, and when he moved back into his place, his cable came back on without a hitch.  He moved again in January of this year. He says he called, told Resort he would be moving and wanted to suspend service for awhile, and they agreed, never asking him to bring the cable box back. The only paper bill he had coming to his old residence was his cable bill, but since his service was suspended, Sterling said he never filed a mail forwarding card with the post office.

On June 1, Sterling went to the Garland County Courthouse to pay a traffic ticket. It was his sister's birthday, and she and her two daughters were waiting for him in the car outside.  The woman at the desk took his money for the ticket, then asked him to wait a moment. She returned with a plainclothes police officer.

"He said, Mr. Sterling, are you aware you have a warrant for your arrest?" Sterling said. "[I said] 'I just called yesterday and she said if I'd come in today everything would be fine,' and he said, 'No, it's from Resort Television Cable.'" Sterling was cuffed, then the officer walked him across the street to the jail, stopping at his sister's car to ask her to go make bail for him, which eventually cost $170.

"As he's walking me over to the jail, he said: 'Yeah, we issued a hundred of these warrants last week for the exact same thing,' " Sterling said. " 'All you have to do is get bonded out, return [the cable box], get a receipt, bring it to the judge on your court date and it'll get nolle prossed [dismissed]' ...  All the time the people who are fingerprinting me and taking my picture are cursing, actually using curse words, in regard to this cable company, saying it's ridiculous."

As soon as he bonded out, Sterling said he took his cable box back and got a receipt. At his July 30 court date, he says he tried to show it to the judge, only to be told that taking the box back after being arrested was the equivalent of "stealing a carton of milk, getting caught, then trying to pay for it." The judge told him he'd have to return for another court date, which Sterling said hasn't been set as of this writing.

With the possibility of a felony conviction, Sterling has retained a lawyer to represent him, to the tune of $1,500.  "I didn't steal anything," Sterling said. "I didn't return something in a timely manner. If there's a fine for that, that's fine. Should it be $1,670 dollars?"

Chuck Launius is the vice-president and general manager of Resort Cable. Launius said that the cable boxes customers lease from Resort are very expensive — $500 for a DVR box, $300 for a digital cable box, $150 for a cable modem — and that Resort sends several certified letters before they file charges for theft of leased or rented property, as they are allowed to do by state statute. Launius said the company sends about a hundred certified letters a month seeking the return of equipment, with a quarter of those eventually going to court.

"The majority of people who don't return their boxes are people who skip out of town," Launius said, "and they are usually people who aren't responsible enough to turn them back in ... These are usually people who move around a lot, and who are in and out of town." Asked why Resort doesn't move forward in civil court instead of criminal court over the boxes, Launius said it's because it is a theft of rental property. He said that though it's up to the judge, most people who wind up in court settle, and pay some kind of restitution.

"It's a terribly irritating event if you're one of those people, to be pulled over for a traffic violation and find out there's a warrant for you for theft of property," Launius said. "But in the end, things work out OK usually."

Garland County Prosecutor Steve Oliver said that the state statute says that if someone leases property and doesn't return it, that's seen as evidence under the law that they've stolen it. A lease is a "different ballgame," Oliver said, than renting-to-own a refrigerator and not keeping up the payments. In Resort's case, the equipment is still owned by the cable company and the customers paying a monthly rental fee. Under the statute, that allows felony charges to be filed, though the statute also says the charges should be dropped if the equipment is returned undamaged within 48 hours after prosecution begins. Though making off with a leased item is a crime — and even though he said he personally doesn't feel that way  — Oliver said he understands that serving warrants over property can leave law enforcement officers feeling like "a collection agency."

"To me it's kind of like hot checks," Oliver said. "As long as the victim is happy and as long as law enforcement can handle the work [it's OK] ... It's law enforcement that has to take the time and the manpower to fill out all these reports and to issue the citations and serve them. I understand the complaint from law enforcement completely."

For his part, Robert Sterling mostly just wants to put it behind him, and doesn't ever get around to firing off at Resort.  "I probably signed something saying that was punishable," Sterling said, "but I don't agree with how they went about it ... it's just drawn out. It's a headache."

We asked a couple of other cable operators about their practices. Kelly Zega, director of public relations for Cox Cable of Arkansas, which includes Fayetteville among its service areas, said that while they do prosecute people for "stealing cable" — obtaining the cable television signal illegally — they don't file charges over unreturned cable boxes, choosing instead to work closely with apartment managers and customers to secure lost equipment.

Mike Wilson, a spokesperson for Comcast Cable, which serves the Little Rock area, said that the company will turn over accounts to a collection agency if former customers fail to return equipment, but they don't currently seek criminal prosecution either.

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