Can I still go to debtor’s prison if I owe money? Look out Charles Dickens, in some states unfortunately it appears that it is happening now!

(My most recent debtors prison blog is found here: http://bit.ly/I2qMO2 .

There are numerous articles posted online that describe cases where people appear to have been put in jail in some states for merely owing  monetary debts.  This can happen to debtors who either owe money to the court or to private parties.  And this has happened in spite of the fact that debtor’s prisons were outlawed federally in 1833.  Most of the states followed suit after 1833 and included clauses in their constitutions prohibiting imprisonment for owing money to someone.

In spite of these prohibitions debtor’s prisons seem to be making a comeback.  There are states where it’s possible to put someone in jail for failure to pay a debt.  I am surprised that lawyers in these states have not put together constitutional challenges to someone who was thrown in jail for such a monetary debt.

According to blog I found online people are languishing in Illinois jails, in Champagne and other counties, for owing unpaid traffic tickets.  A law professor from Notre Dame Law School quoted in the article says that we do have “de-facto” debtor’s prisons because of this practice of jailing debtor’s for merely owing money in spite of constitutional prohibitions even if the money is owed to the state.   According to this law professor this creates a situation where debtors are scrambling to come up with money by any means just to stay out of jail.

An article in the Saint Petersburg Times points out that it costs the jails $53 per day (in Florida) to incarcerate these people who often don’t owe much money.  So the taxpayers pay for the jailing, the judge, and the whole judicial system that wastes time and money trying to collect from these destitute people.  In Florida they have an ominous sounding “Collections Court” that handles these cases and about a third of Florida counties have these courts.  Even in the counties without these courts people are still being jailed for owing money.

According to the Times article it costs the system $62,085 to bring in $80,450 in debt.  Those languishing in jail for these unpaid tickets are certainly poor and often minority but anyone without means can get caught up in this travesty of justice.  How is it still a possibility that you could go to jail for owing money?  Were debtors prisons not outlawed in the 1800s?  Didn’t Charles Dickens inform us 200 years ago about the foolishness of this practice?

The Times article points out that you can be jailed for violating a court order or for failing to make court ordered payments.  So technically they are not being jailed for owing money but it amounts to the same thing.  Jail time is usually given to people who owe spousal and child support but legal experts argue that it is all illegal.

Now there is more and more disturbing chatter on the internet about debtors being jailed for owing a purely private company money.  There are horror stories emerging about arrests made and persons jailed for owing money to private parties.  On such woman was arrested one day, handcuffed, put in a very cold police car, brought to jail and no one told her why for some time while the contents of her purse were unceremoniously dumped in a plastic bag.  She spent a cold night in jail keeping her hands under her armpits for warmth until 16 hours later when she was informed that she missed a court hearing concerning some private debt.

In that case she had missed a court hearing but in Indiana a man faced jail for just failing to pay a purely private debt.  His incarceration had nothing to do with violating a court order.   According to an online article in the Minnesota StarTibune a lawyer challenged the constitutionality of a debtor being threatened with jail for owing a debt.  The appellate judges agreed with the lawyer and he won the case because debtor’s prisons were made illegal in Indiana in the 1850s.

The article in the Star Tribune points out that there is an inconsistency with who is locked up when, and for how much debt, and that all of these things vary from state to state and county to county.  It also makes mention that no one knows how often this happens as no statistics are kept of these incidents.  One man in Illinois was locked up by a judge “indefinitely” for owing $300 to a lumber yard.

Now it seems that the collection agents are influencing the legal system more and more to be more creditor friendly.   Some would say that the collectors are subverting the legal system and using the threat of jail and jail time extract money from people who cannot afford to pay anything towards these privately held debts.

The good news is though that bankruptcy can remove most debts from your balance sheet.  After a bankruptcy discharge you legally no longer owe the debts anymore so no creditor can try to collect on them or try to get you put in jail if you don’t.  Your legal obligation to pay these debts is eliminated.  With debt collectors gaining in power and money and influence this is a very good thing.

In California I know that the courts can threaten jail if you do not attend the court ordered “debtor’s exam”.  This is where a creditor can ask you all sorts of personal questions about your assets and your financial situation.  The courts cannot jail you if you do not pay the creditor in California but they threaten to jail you if you don’t show up for the court ordered exam.

I filed a case for a client the day before his debtor’s exam and he brought his bankruptcy case number to the debtor’s exam.  The other attorney did not know what to do but the judge threw the whole case out right there and told her to go to bankruptcy court for any money.  My client had nothing and the creditor had no reason to declare his debts non-dischargeable so that is the last we ever saw of the creditor.  My client got his discharge without a problem.  Bankruptcy is indeed a powerful mechanism to defeat over-zealous creditors.

You almost always don’t have to argue whether you owe a debt after bankruptcy and you don’t have to argue whether any punishment is constitutional.  I wrote another blog about debtor’s prisons here: http://bit.ly/JmsMFt .

I am a bankruptcy lawyer practicing bankruptcy law in San Diego California.   For more information related to debt, bankruptcy, or debtor’s prison please visit my websites at www.farquharlaw.com and www.freshstartsandiego.com.  Or call me directly for a free consultation at (619) 702-5015.  Call now for free credit report and analysis! 

For a free e-book: “13 THINGS YOU SHOULD DO TO PREPARE FOR YOUR BANKRUPTCY FILING” please send a request by e-mail to: farquharesq@yahoo.com.

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2 Responses to Can I still go to debtor’s prison if I owe money? Look out Charles Dickens, in some states unfortunately it appears that it is happening now!

  1. Marian Semic says:

    Debtor’s prison absolutely exists in America. They just call it “contempt of court” now. My husband is about to do 4 months for it thanks to Riverside CA D.A. Richarad Lorenzi. Criminal contempt for failure to pay more than $300 dollars a month to Child Support services (they have decreed that we must pay $800). Especially absurd is the fact that his “kids” are now in their 20s living in Maui… and $110,000 of the $200k debt is interest tacked on by the State.
    So you see not only is a crime to not come up with the money, it is a crime to not come up with ALL the money. “Some” money is called “Contempt”. My husband has already been stripped of a driver’s license and done countless years of “Sheriffs Labor program” weekends. He is now age 60.
    In Philadelphia a former lawyer, Beatty Chadwick, did 14 years in jail with no trial for contempt of court. (failure to pay alimony) It took the guy’s son 14 years of legal battle to get him free at age 73.

  2. farquharlaw says:

    Child support is unfortunately not dischargeable in bankruptcy but it sounds like your husband is being jailed for failure to follow a court order and not for failure to pay the debt (though it amounts to the same thing in the end). Child support is treated differently than debts owed to creditors like credit card companies.
    A contempt procedding is how they do it according to a family law attorney I talked to. They charge contempt and if they can prove that there is a lawful court order, notice of that order, and a wilful attempt to violate the order then they find contempt which is an offense that can land you in jail.
    In the end though I would argue that it is the same as debtors prison.

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