Customer tries to cash bank check, ends up in jail


For 28-year-old Ikenna Njoku, what should have been the simple act of cashing a check turned into four days in jail and the loss of his car and job.


A year ago Njoku, a construction worker, had just purchased his first home and qualified for a federal rebate for first-time home buyers on his tax return.
He says he requested to have the rebate deposited directly into his Chase bank account in Auburn, Wash., but when the IRS rebate arrived, he found out that Chase had closed his account because of overdrawn checks. The bank deducted $600 to cover what he owed and mailed Njoku a cashier's check of $8,463.21 to make up the difference.
When Njoku arrived at the bank to cash the Chase check, he says the teller immediately became suspicious.
“When I walked in, the teller looked me up and down and asked if I worked for Chase,” he said. “She asked me questions like where did I get the check from. I sat there for half an hour while they researched the check.”
Njoku got impatient and said he would run an errand and return.
When he returned the bank was closed, so he says he called Chase's customer service, who told him to return the next day. But when he did, bank officials insisted the check was fake. The police soon arrived to arrest Njoku on forgery charges. Njoku was held in jail four nights, even though Chase called the Auburn police detective handling the case and left a message saying the arrest was a mistake, according to Njoku's lawyer. But it was that detective's day off, so Njoku stayed in jail through the weekend.
"He had two forms of valid ID, a check issued by Chase, he walked in there during normal business hours. I don't see any valid basis for suspicion in the first place," said Felix Luna, Njoku’s lawyer. The Seattle attorney took on Njoku’s case about two months ago. The story was reported this week by KING 5 News.
Njoku, who was born in Seattle and whose family is from Nigeria, says he was extremely embarrassed by the situation.
Njoku’s car, which he drove to the bank the day he was arrested, was towed and ultimately auctioned off because he couldn't pay the impound fees to get it back. Because he needed the car to get to his job, he lost the temporary construction job he had as well. Now Njoku uses his mother's car and gets construction work wherever he can find it.
Luna, who has not yet filed any litigation, said he believes the bank may have violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination in banking transactions based on race or presumed national origin.
Even after admitting its mistake, the bank did not immediately reissue another cashier's check to Njoku or give him the more than $8,000 they were retaining, Luna said. It took about a month before Njoku received the money after the Auburn police department released the original cashier's check to him.
Despite repeated efforts to contact Chase, Njoku and his lawyer said they heard from the bank for the first time this week, more than a year after the June 2010 event. Luna said a Chase lawyer contacted him Wednesday saying he would look into the case and be in touch.
Soon after the story aired on KING 5 news this week, a Chase spokeswoman issued an apology to Njoku, the station reported. That would mark the first and only apology he has received.
"This is a very unfortunate and unusual situation," Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot of Chase wrote to KING 5. "We apologize to Mr. Njoku and deeply regret what happened to him. We are working quickly to understand all the details so we can reach a fair resolution."
A manager at the Chase branch in Auburn declined further comment to
Njoku now holds an account with Wells Fargo instead. He said he just wants Chase bank to fix the way they do things.
“It shouldn’t take them a day and a half to research a check,” he said.
© 2011