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More States Are Jailing Debtors for Contempt of Court Related to Debt Payments

June 14, 2010

Our Rancho Cucamonga abusive debt collection attorneys frequently tell clients that you cannot be arrested for failing to pay a debt in the United States. While this is technically true, a recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune shows that some debt collectors are finding ways around it. According to the June 9 article, debtors in some states are being arrested and thrown into jail for contempt of court after they miss court hearings or court-ordered payments of their debts. The practice is under the radar, the article said, but uses government resources and money to enforce private debts as well as costing debtors money and sending them to jail, sometimes with no warning and over very small debts.

The practice is not followed in every state, the article said, and some law enforcement agencies don't have the funds to make arrests in non-criminal cases. But when they do, it can come as a shock to people who didn't realize their unpaid debts could land them in jail. The article tells the story of a woman who was jailed overnight for missing a court hearing related to a $6,200 credit card debt. Like many debtors, she ignored the notices she received because she had no history with the debt collection company and assumed it was a mistake or a scam. Another woman was jailed for a $250 credit card debt that led to a lawsuit that she says she was not notified about. In some cases, courts order debtors imprisoned indefinitely until they come up with a payment (difficult when you're in jail). Consumer advocates say the practice also penalizes those who have the least, who are more likely to miss payments and also more likely to be financially harmed by bail and impound fees.

As Garden Grove debt collection harassment lawyers, we don't even know where to start explaining what's wrong with this practice. Federal debtors' prisons were abolished in the 1830s, and most states followed suit in that era. Thanks to a 1970s Supreme Court ruling, it is unconstitutional to jail someone only for a debt; in fact, the state constitutions of Tennessee and Oklahoma forbid the practice. These people are being jailed for violating a court order, not for debt, but that's a technicality. In addition, jail for nonpayment is essentially jailing someone for being too poor to pay. As the article points out, the practice of putting debtors in jail makes the court system an arm of the private debt collection company, inappropriately spending taxpayer money to do the work of private industry. The arrests sometimes stem from disputed debts or unethical behavior by debt collectors, like failing to properly serve court papers for a lawsuit, so they can be unfair. And perhaps most importantly, jailing debtors is a violation of their rights and dignity.

Howard Law PC aggressively goes after debt collectors that use abusive, illegal and deceptive tactics to get payments. These practices are illegal under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, but debt collectors routinely violate that law because they know many people don't know their rights. In some cases, not understanding the system can make the situation worse by allowing debts to go into a lawsuit and then into court-ordered collections, exposing debtors to the barely legal collection tactics described above. Our Lake Forest debt collection attorneys help consumers fight back, fighting lawsuits and legal judgments that were unethically obtained and suing companies that use abusive and harassing debt collection practices. In a FDCPA lawsuit, you can win $1,000 in damages plus attorney fees and damages for any pain, anguish and financial costs you suffered.

If you believe you are a victim of deceptive, abusive or otherwise illegal debt collection practices, you don't have to put up with it. Call Howard Law today for a free, confidential evaluation of your case, at 1-800-872-5925, or send us a message online.