Can You Really Go To Jail for Past Due Debt?

The question of whether or not you can go to jail for past due debt is one that is troubling more and more Americans, following certain newspaper reports that this is, indeed, the case. Several cases have made headlines in recent months where people have been jailed in connection with debts.

However, the pertinent words here are “in connection with debts”. Debtor’s prisons were abolished in the US in 1869 and it is not a crime to owe money, even if it is overdue. If that were the case, several million Americans would be facing jail.

Laws vary from one state to another, and some states seem to treat debtors more harshly than others, but no-one has been jailed because they owe money. What they have been jailed for – in every case – is for failing to comply with a court order, or failing to show up in court in connection with their debt.

If a court orders that a debtor make repayments of a certain figure every month and the debtor then does not comply, the creditor can ask the court to issue an arrest warrant. If the judge agrees, a warrant for arrest will then be issued for failing to comply with the order of the court – not for simply owing money.

The problem appears to be that more and more creditors and debt collectors are asking courts to issue warrants in order to create an atmosphere of fear among other members of the public who owe money. Creditors and debt collectors alike know the law, but if they can create the impression – aided by newspaper reports – that an individual can be jailed simply for owing money they are not going to do anything that will dispel that notion. If people become terrified that they can be thrown into jail, it will make the job of the debt collector or creditor that much easier overall.

Another issue here is the problem of creditors selling debts on to other companies. There is a huge trade involved here, with debt buying companies paying cents on the dollar for debts and then using whatever tactics they can to recover the money from the debtor.

Credit card companies, and other credit issuers, will obviously try to recover money from defaulters themselves, but eventually they tire of the effort if they are getting no response from the debtor, and simply cut their losses by selling the debt on. For the debt buying companies, this is big business. The generally accepted figure is that when they have recovered from the debtor twice the amount that they paid the credit issuer everything from there on is sheer profit. This is why they will often negotiate deals with the debtor to settle for 50 or 60 cents on the dollar; the profit margins can be huge.

From the debtor’s point of view, the practice of companies selling debts can become confusing, as debts are frequents sold on several times between debt-buyers until the point arrives at which the debtor doesn’t recognize the name of the company now pursuing the debt. There have been numerous instances where debtors have simply ignored requests for payment because they did not realize that the money they owed on their Master Card, for instance, was now due to a third party.

Furthermore, as debts get bought and sold many times, correct information about the debtor can get lost and misplaced, which can result in someone being harried for money alleged to be due on a credit card they have never had.

There is also no doubt whatsoever that some debt collectors will use underhand tactics in order to frighten the debtor and will stop at nothing to scare the debtor into paying. If they can create an atmosphere in which members of the public are led to believe that anyone owing money is a lying, evil thief and should rightly be put in jail, so much the better from their point of view. Debt collectors defend their stand by saying that they are performing a valuable public service, because if debtors were simply allowed to default without recourse, the cost of borrowing would increase for all those people who pay on time and never default.

However, in order to curb the practices of some debt collectors there is already a federal law called the Fair Debt collection Practices Act and there are plans to strengthen this further; the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – a government agency – is in the process of drawing up new regulations.

The number of complaints about debt collection practices to the Federal Trade Commission rocketed from 104,000 in 2008 to 140,000 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available, but is probably at least double that by now, in view of the ever-growing number of people who default on their debts as a result of joblessness and slow growth in wages compared with the rapid increase in the price of everyday necessities. The debt collection sector is expected to grow by some 26% over the next three years which will only increase the pressure on debtors.

Whether you get arrested or not for ignoring a court’s order or missing a hearing over an unpaid debt seems to be a matter of luck and geography. In some areas, the Sheriff’s Office has sufficient manpower to pursue debtors while in other areas it doesn’t. Sergeant Robert Shingledecker of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office said that “if you talk to 15 different countries you will find 15 different approaches to handling civil warrants; it all depends on manpower”.

Robert Vee, a 36-year-old highway construction worker was arrested while driving his teenage daughter home from school. Seeing her father handcuffed brought on a violent anxiety attack on his daughter who suffers from asthma. He had to make a collect call to his landlord who agreed to bring the bail money to the court so that he could be freed.

Vee says that he still owes around $40,000 on an old mortgage and every time he sees a police car with flashing lights is worried that he may be arrested again.

Perhaps the one thing to take away is that – if you do owe money that is past due – you should take every care to comply with any court order; debt collectors only get paid or make a profit when they collect.

Article Written By Writer: James Smith

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