Karen Lindsay Was Overdue at the Library, so They Threw the Book at Her

People, Oct. 23, 1989
Assignment: Georgia sheriffs created a national kneeslapper when they jailed a woman for failing to pay her library fines.

For Karen Lindsay, Friday the 13th came a little late this year -- exactly two weeks late. On the night of Friday, Oct. 27, Lindsay was fast asleep in the bedroom of her Norcross, Ga., apartment when there came a knock at the front door. Clad only in her nightgown, the 48-year-old grandmother opened the door to find a sheepish police officer holding a bench warrant for her arrest. Lindsay's offense was written clearly at the top: FAILURE TO RETURN LIBRARY BOOKS.

Flabbergasted, Lindsay returned to her bedroom to get dressed for a trip to jail, donning a bright orange and blue blouse and turquoise jeans. Minutes later, she was being fingerprinted, photographed, and attired in a regulation prison jumpsuit. "Must have been a size 40," she grumbles. Lindsay, an office worker, spent the night in jail and was released the next afternoon on bond.

"The whole thing was just bizarre," she says. "I'm not some arch-criminal. I haven't been out raping or pillaging or driving drunk....It's been very hard to believe. People like me don't go to jail."

In Gwinnett County, they do. In 1984 the Georgia legislature passed a law making it a criminal offense to fail to return library property. The penalty: a maximum $500 fine and 30 days in jail per overdue item.

The idiotic statute is seldom enforced -- save, it appears, in this Atlanta suburb. Lindsay moved here from Michigan in March 1988, a year after her husband's death, because she wanted to start a new life. Library officials say Lindsay got a borrower's card in May from the Lake Lanier Regional Library system, which serves Gwinnett, Dawson, and Forsyth counties. At a branch near her house, Lindsay used her new card to check out seven books, among them a nature tome called Wild Animals; novels Cold Sassy Tree, Cry to Heaven, and Twilight Eyes; and Weave World, a book about sewing, one of Lindsay's hobbies (she also makes wreaths of dried flowers). Two of the books were due back in June 1988; the other five were due back the next month.

Lindsay maintains that she returned the books, although she can't recall the details. "Ask me what I got at the grocery store in July of 1988," she shrugs, "and I couldn't tell you that either."

But the library says the books were never returned. In August and September 1988, officials sent Lindsay notices advising her that the books were overdue and threatening legal action. The last, a certified letter, was never picked up -- because, as it turned out, Lindsay had moved to a less expensive apartment in the same complex two months earlier.

Lindsay, new in town and working two hourly jobs, was having trouble making ends meet. She fell behind in her rent and was forced to move to a still cheaper apartment down the road in September. "I was guilty of briefly not being able to support myself after my husband died," Lindsay says. She was also hit in the face with a soccor ball; the subsequent surgery put her out of work for two months. Asks Lindsay: "What's so criminal about that? The truth of the matter is, most people are just a few paychecks away from being homeless."

Ah, but those overdue books. The Gwinnett County solicitor's office began looking for Lindsay last August, a year after the overdue notices were sent. They had trouble finding her: Lindsay had moved three times in two years, and prosecutors apparently didn't have her name right. Lindsay's surname is also her nickname -- most everyone calls her "Lindsay." And she signs some documents that way: "Lindsay K. Lindsay," or "K. Lindsay Lindsay." Prosecutors thought they were looking for someone named Lindsay K. Lindsay.

They scheduled an arraignment for her under the wrong name and mailed notice of it to the wrong address. The arraignment notice was returned by the post office on Sept. 20.

But that didn't stop the wheels of justice. When Lindsay failed to show up for her arraignment on Oct. 16, the county solicitor's office asked the magistrate court to have her arrested -- even though officials knew she'd never been notified. Gwinnett County sheriffs, oddly, had no trouble at all finding Lindsay: faster than you can say "library larceny," she was behind bars.

Lindsay found it an experience less than pleasant. She was taken in a police car to the county jail in Lawrenceville on High Hope Road (Lindsay still can't say it without grimacing. "They really just ought to call it 'No-Hope Road,'" she says. "The place has all this circular barbed wire over the top of the fences.") Lindsay was booked, mugshots and all, and eventually placed in a women's cell with about 50 other hard cases, some of them serving time on convictions.

One detainee, who said she was held on auto-theft charges, asked Lindsay what she was in for. "I told her, and she just looked at me and said 'Sure, sure,'" says Lindsay.

Eventually Lindsay found a top bunk. She shinnied up and remained there the rest of the night. "I couldn't figure any way to get down, so I stayed put until daylight, until I could see," says Lindsay, who has poor night vision and stands 5'1". Friends bailed her out around noon the next day. She went home and took a long bath.

At a court hearing on her charges the following Monday, Lindsay, a gregarious talker with an acid wit, came out swinging. She pleaded not guilty -- then went home and called the daily newspaper. A media circus ensued. A local radio station paid her $149.65 fine; two others asked her to appear on the air. Atlanta lawyer Tom West volunteered to handle her case for free. Late Night With David Letterman tried to book her, but Lindsay turned them down. "Very strange people appear on Letterman," Lindsay opines.

The public was horrified that a widowed grandmother languished in jail for overdue library books even as crack dealers make their way into suburbia. Gwinnett County Solicitor Gerald N. Blaney found himself on the receiving end of dozens of irate phone calls and letters.

Among the 5,000 defendants Blaney "processes" every year, there have been three or four others -- he's not sure exactly how many -- jailed for overdue library books.

"I cannot pick and choose which violations of the law I will prosecute and which violations I will not prosecute," Blaney said in a prepared statement last Friday. "I do not understand why anyone would not think that the intentional failure to return library books is as much a form of theft as is stealing from a retail store." He says it's not his fault Lindsay wasn't notified of her arraignment and suggests that she "didn't want to be found."

"Certain individuals have attempted to cast me as an ineffectual, bumbling hick with nothing better to do than lock up people who do not return library books," said Blaney. "I resent this, because in this case neither I nor any member of my staff did anything wrong procedurally or legally....I'm embarrassed about a lot of things, but this case isn't one of them."

Still, Lindsay appears to have won her battle. Blaney agreed to drop the charges against her last Friday, but said he was doing so at the library's request and not because he had any doubt of her guilt. And under a new set of rules adopted because of Lindsay's brief incarceration, Blaney has returned six other overdue-book cases he was preparing to prosecute to library officials. Now they will have to obtain a warrant themselves if they want to prosecute an overdue book borrower.

John Shelton, director of the 10-branch Lake Lanier Regional Library system, says that his office has avidly been pursuing criminal book borrowers since 1983. From that year to this, the library system has circulated 6.5 million items to some 90,000 active patrons. Of these, says Shelton, about 50 have been hauled into court (but not jailed) for overdue books.

"We've had a few people turn in their cards over this," Shelton admits. But Lindsay's adventure also has put the fear of God into the book borrowers. Patrons are flocking back with overdue items, some of them missing for years.

"November normally is a slack month for us," says Shelton, "but right now people are bringing back books and paying their fines."

Lindsay is just ready for life to return to normal. "Now when I go out, I get odd looks," she says. "People know they know me, but they're not sure from where." Her friends have "just been appalled," she says.

Says Lindsay's boss, businesswoman Diane Craig: "Basically, I think this whole thing is just ludicrous."

Karen Lindsay