Rent-to-own disputes should be strictly civil matters

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Rent-to-own companies offer products that customers can pay small rent payments for with the intention of eventually buying it. The appearance of low prices draws consumers in by convincing them that they’re getting a great deal, but people often end up paying more than originally expected. While this practice is potentially predatory on its own, legal allowances add to the danger these companies pose.

Many states, including Texas, allow rent-to-own businesses to file criminal charges against delinquents. A 1977 Texas law permits criminal offense reports and potential felony charges against those who fail to pay up on their rent-to-own contracts — landing some in jail. Rent-to-own companies have pressed charges against thousands of Texans, even those who returned the loaned items. This ability is unique to the rent-to-own industry.

Rental companies should not be able to use the justice system as their personal debt collection service.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office has brought charges against rent-to-own customers for more than 20 years. In Texas’ McLennan County, rent-to-own disputes comprised more than nine out of every 10 theft of service complaints filed from 2014 to the end of June 2017.

Thousands of Rent-A-Center customers have reported harassment and destroyed financial lives after leasing items from the company, a Plano-based giant that is one of the largest in the country. Not only that, but items that customers lease to own — such as furniture and electronics — can end up garnering more than two or three times the price they would have cost buying it upfront. Rent-A-Center has been sued by its own shareholders for improper record keeping about customer payments.

Advantage Furniture in Bellmead filed 60 theft of service complaints with the police department in just three years.

Texas legislators on both sides of the aisle expressed interest in reforming the law. “While I believe that we, as individuals, are responsible for the contracts in which we enter, I do not believe that one industry, or set of industries, should have special laws allowing the escalation of a dispute to our criminal system,” Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, said to The Texas Tribune. “We have a civil system for these kind of disputes.”

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, also noted that escalating contract disputes to the criminal level was unfair. The district attorneys of Travis, Harris and Dallas counties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trying delinquents in criminal court mirrors the archaic practice of debtor prisons, in which people who failed to pay their debts faced incarceration and forced labor. Despite being outlawed in the 1830s and affirmed as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in several cases, debtors’ prisons effectually persist today.

Our police have more important things to do than go after debtors at the behest of rent-to-own companies. Rent-to-own disputes should be strictly civil matters, not criminal ones. It’s time for Texas to stop its preferential treatment of the rent-to-own industry. It’s time for reform.

Verses is a Plan II-environmental engineering freshman from San Antonio. He is a columnist.