How lenders are turning low-level courts into Dickensian debt collection mills

The following article by Rebecca Burns (The Intercept 28 February 2018) deals with the reality that Americans are still going to prison, or threatened with imprisonment, because they have fallen into debt. It should no happen in the modern age. And there are sharks there waiting to take full advantage of the situation.

 

On Christmas Eve in 2013, an out-of-work welder named Rex Iverson was rushed to a Utah hospital. He survived, but was hit with a hefty bill for the ambulance ride. There is a widespread assumption that that indigent patients never have to pay emergency room bills they can’t afford, and instead the cost is passed on to those with insurance.

But in fact, companies and municipalities pursue such debts aggressively. In Iverson’s case, the city operating the ambulance service won a $2,300 judgement against him in small claims court, but he had no wages to garnish. A judge issued a warrant for Iverson when he didn’t return to court to discuss the unpaid debt.

“We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants,” Box Elder County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dale Ward later said. “But we make every effort to resolve the issues without making an arrest on a civil bench warrant. The reason we do that is we don’t want to run a debtors’ prison. There is no reason for someone to be rotting in jail on a bad debt.”

In January 2016, a deputy sheriff knocked on Iverson’s door and arrested him. The judge had set a $350 bail, which Iverson told jail officials he could not pay. Later the same day, Iverson, 45, was found dead in a holding cell, an all-too-common occurrence in American jails. An investigation determined that he had killed himself by ingesting strychnine poison.

The sheriff’s office “made every effort to keep Mr. Iverson out of jail in relation to warrants issued regarding this debt,” Ward told The Intercept in a statement, noting that his office would not defy a court order. “When the court issues a warrant for arrest we are obligated to serve that warrant as ordered, no matter what the underlying reason may be.”

Iverson’s story is just one of many documented in a damning new report from the American Civil Liberties Union that finds that collectors ranging from federal student lenders, to third-party debt buyers, to utility and ambulance services routinely wield the threat of arrest to intimidate people into paying up.

Federal law outlawed debt prisons in 1833, but lenders, landlords and even gyms and other businesses have found a way to resurrect the Dickensian practice. With the aid of private collection agencies, they file millions of lawsuits in state and local courts each year, winning 95 percent of the time. If a defendant fails to appear at post-judgement hearings known as “debtors’ examinations,” collectors can seek a warrant for contempt of court — even if the debtor didn’t realize they were being sued.

In one case documented by the Baltimore Sunan affiliate of Kushner Cos. — the firm run by the family of Jared Kushner — secured a warrant for a Baltimore bus driver and mother of three who had moved out of her apartment early after receiving a federal housing voucher. She said she never received a notice to appear, and eventually declared bankruptcy to avoid arrest.

“A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt,” the ACLU report, sheds light for the first time on the frequency of modern-day debt imprisonment, estimating that courts are issuing tens of thousands of arrest warrants each year for debtors owing as little as $30. Forty-four states permit judges to issue these warrants, often known as “body attachments,” in civil cases.

“This has been a largely invisible problem, because the people it’s happening to typically don’t have lawyers and aren’t speaking out,” says Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher at ACLU. “Many low-level courts have essentially become debt-collection mills.”

One in three Americans has a debt that’s been turned over to a private collection agency, and the ACLU found cases of warrants being issued over almost every kind of consumer debt—payday and auto loans, utility bills, even day care fees. Many cases begin with an emergency expense that someone is unable to pay, sending them into a spiral of debt and imprisonment. The use of cash bail often compounds the problem; debtors languish in jail for up to two weeks, according to the report. In some jurisdictions, judges routinely set bail at the exact amount of the debt owed, then surrender it to the collector once paid.

In other cases documented by the ACLU, people with outstanding medical debt were too ill to go to court, as in the case of an Indiana mother of three who had been living with family in Florida while she recovered from thyroid cancer. Unbeknown to her, a small claims court had issued three warrants in a suit over her unpaid medical bills, and she was arrested when she returned home.

“Collectors have little incentive to properly notify defendants in these cases,” said Turner. “We found examples of people missing court dates due to work, childcare responsibilities, lack of transportation, physical disability, illness, or just because they didn’t receive notification of the court date.”

Even when debtors aren’t arrested or jailed, the threat is often potent enough to compel them into surrendering income from Social Security or other public benefits that are legally exempt from debt collection. In other cases, they take out high-interest payday loans continue the debt cycle.

Debt collectors are well aware of the leverage a warrant gives them. According to Turner, one debt collection attorney in Washington files 20 to 30 warrants a week, largely against noncitizen Latino farm workers who are often terrified to enter a courthouse in case immigration officials are present. Another attorney in Texas who teaches a “Collections 101” course for the State Bar of Texas has a section in his handbook entitled, “It’s Easier to Settle When the Debtor is Under Arrest.”

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