In America, it’s not against the law to be poor, no matter what some politicians might argue. That sounds obvious, but for a long time, in fact right up until almost the dawn of the 20th century, if you owed a debt and couldn’t pay it, you were thrown in jail. By 1833, this had been banned on the federal level. But a new ACLU report has uncovered that debt collectors have found a way around that law, and are throwing people in jail over $10 debts, bank errors, and even debts that don’t even exist.
The ACLU’s report looks at over one thousand cases that are, essentially, the court system issuing arrest warrants over private debts. While this has been an issue reported on before, the exact scale and scope hasn’t really been charted before. And the results are sprawling, ranging across 26 states and Puerto Rico. This terrifying process by which this happens is simple to explain:
- Somebody claims you owe them a debt: This can be, quite literally, anything: Rent, a utility bill, a car payment, a check that bounces. It doesn’t matter. It is money you owe that you haven’t paid. And you’re not alone: More than a third of all Americans owe an unpaid debt.
- That debt is sold to a debt collection agency: The person or company that owns the debt can make a good faith effort to collect from you, or they could decide you’re not worth their time. Either way, they unload the debt for pennies on the dollar to a debt collection agency. For them, it’s a win-win. They get at least some money out of the debt, and the red ink is off their books.
- The debt collection agency attempts to collect the full debt: Again, in theory, they’re supposed to make a good faith effort, although that depends heavily on both the agency and the state. But they can ultimately just choose to sue you, and if they do, that’s where this problem kicks in.
- The debt collection agency sets a court date that the debtor either can’t make or in some cases isn’t even properly informed of: While you’re supposed to be served whenever a court case is made against you, there are so many cases of service process — that is, the court informing you to show up — that are done through the mail to the last known address, with no followup. Why are there so many cases? Debt collectors file millions of them.
- Once the debtor doesn’t show up, the court rules they’re in contempt and issues a warrant for their arrest: Usually, that warrant is for the exact amount the debt collection agency claims they’re owed.
This doesn’t mean the police immediately kick down your door. These are bench warrants, so you’re not actively being searched for. But, if you get pulled over for speeding or have another minor brush with the law, it means you’ll be arrested over a crime you might not even know you committed.
Or, for that matter, a crime you didn’t commit at all. Debt collection agencies often will simply accept that a debt is owed without bothering to check the paperwork, and it’s difficult to verify what the debt even is, in some cases, before you’re in court. The ACLU has highlighted a few cases, such as the sole caretaker of an elderly woman being jailed overnight, along with a cancer patient (facing three warrants) who was arrested in front of her children. She was too weak to even walk up the stairs to the jail. The amounts in question have been as low as $10.
It’s not clear how many bench warrants are out there. The report includes eyewitness accounts of a Boston court issuing so many warrants that the stamp to verify them broke, and judges reportedly turn out 30 warrants in 10 minutes. But until some form of action is taken, these legal landmines are going to keep being seeded, just waiting for people to stumble over them.