Police

No Debtors Prison in America–Technically, At Least

Still, a Utah man died after being jailed last month over not paying an ambulance bill.

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Rex Iverson, 45 years old, died after being placed in jail in Box Elder County, Utah, last month.

Iverson

What had he done, ultimately, that had him facing his last moments on earth in a cage? He had not paid a $2,377 ambulance bill debt from 2013.

He neglected to show up in court regarding a court judgment on the debt, and thus Box Elder County deputies took him in to jail last month, where he was found unresponsive in a holding cell that same day and was reported by the Ogden, Utah, Standard Examiner as having died in jail, though the Salt Lake Tribune says he wasn't declared dead until after he was taken to a local hospital.

His death is still being investigated, but there are no initial foul play suspicions.

The ACLU commented to Ogden, Utah's, Standard-Examiner today:

"From a procedural point of view, it appears to have been carried out properly in this case," said John Mejia, ACLU Utah legal director. "But I think we do have concerns there is a larger problem of thousands of these orders issuing from district and justice courts in a process of debt collection in Utah."….

Statewide in 2015, 3,872 civil bench warrants were issued by Utah district court judges and 1,610 by justice court judges, according to state courts system data.

Each of those warrants could result in a jailing such as that experienced by Iverson, although most civil cases don't go that far.

As the government's own Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website explains:

Collections agencies don't have the legal authority to issue arrest warrants or have you put in jail.

Warning: If a collector has obtained a judgment against you and you ignore an order to appear in court, a judge may issue a warrant for your arrest.

Tip: You should never ignore a court order. If you get a court order to appear, you should go to court and provide any required information. You may want to consult with an attorney to help you with your court appearance.

Heavy.com paints a wider picture of Mr. Iverson's life, including his parents' tragic death in a car accident, and the fact that Iverson apparently had no wages to garnish to pay the debt.

In a Standard-Examiner story from last week, the sheriff didn't seem thrilled this had happened:

"We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants," Box Elder County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dale Ward 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."

But the law mandates sheriff's offices must serve bench warrants issued by the courts, Ward said. Civil warrants are lumped in with all other warrants, including those from criminal cases, as deputies work through to serve them.

A somewhat similar story, not involving a death, circulated last week in which Texas man Paul Aker was alarmed to find armed U.S. Marshals show up at his home because he didn't show up in court over a very old initially $1,500 unpaid student loan debt. Business Insider has a detailed account, including the Marshals insisting Aker threatened them and a Texas U.S. congressman Gene Green lamenting this practice.

I saw people in social network debates up in arms at the implication that debt was what caused the armed Marshal assault. No, failing to obey a court order was the crime.

But it's like some radical libertarians like to ask as a thought experiment: what's the penalty for a parking ticket? Why, death. Because failing to pay a parking ticket can set in motion a chain of events where, if you don't start obeying, people will come with armed force to take you away, and use whatever force might be necessary to make you obey if you resist.

I guess it's up to you where in the chain of causation you decide to lay the blame. You could say Rex Iverson's death in jail had nothing to do, really, with not paying a debt.

Still, it should give pause to consider how serious the consequences of throwing someone bodily in a cage can be, and wonder about the reasons we have to do it.

I wrote back in 2014 on how the enforcement of petty laws can escalate, especially for the poor, into life-destroying situations. Which can include, as Mr. Iverson learned, death in a cell.

NEXT: Apple to Judge: Forcing Them to Write Code for FBI Violates Their Free Speech

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  1. I guess it could just negatively impact his credit score.

  2. What would have happened if he did appear in court and still couldn’t/wouldn’t pay?

  3. If they don’t show up, why don’t they just lose by default and start having their wages garnished? I thought that was standard procedure.

    1. He had no wages to garnish, as the HEAVY link explains.

      1. I’ll add that to the post in case others are confused.

        1. You expect us to actually read the article? What is this, Playboy?

          1. Hey, they sometimes even have to write the comments for us, too. (I like Nick’s comments the best, he writes comments under the name Cyto-something-or-other.)

      2. So the penalty is death for being unemployed? Our unemployment problem solved!

        1. No. There’s no evidence that he died because of being arrested or being put in prison. And if anything, his unemployment made it easier for him to show up for his court date.

          1. Unless the guy had no means of transportation or means of affording it.

  4. Every law every regulation everything everything every tax is a gun.

  5. The problem with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s advice is that if you are a poor and owe money, you probably get more than a few angry letters wanting money in the mail. You are probably just going to toss all of them. Unless the court notices are being sent registered, it’s unlikely they are actually read by a debtor.

    And yeah, they owe money but can afford to see a lawyer. That’s a good one.

    1. if you are a poor and owe money, you probably get more than a few angry letters wanting money in the mail. You are probably just going to toss all of them.

      Personal responsibility anyone?

      Did I stumble on the Daily Beast by some accident?

      1. I never respond to collection letters from creditors. I only respond to the initial creditor. Bill collectors are notorious for trying to 1) collect on old, paid debt – I have sent a few of these letters to the Atty General’s office for review, 2) offering to take a smaller amount – if you send money for the smaller amount, the balance can get sold to another creditor, and 3) trying to collect on debt past the statute of limitations and 4) trying to collect on debt that isn’t even delinquent (I get these all the time for my student loans- they are paid online, on time- however there is at least one company attempting to collect on the debt owed. This company is a scam artist. These collection companies will also report the debt to the credit bureau every time the debt is sold, therefore making very old debt look recent. Sometimes one account can have dozens of reports on a credit report. If someone doesn’t know how to fight back, or what the bill collectors are really doing, it is easy to make the mistake of just throwing the letter away. There is very little public awareness of how to deal with predatory bill collectors.

  6. I wonder about the chain of causation that led to this:

    https://c4ss.org/content/43414

    1. What in the fuck did I just read?

      1. an incestuous cesspool

  7. ‘… he wasn’t declared dead until after he was taken to a local hospital.’

    And that’s another ambulance bill that he won’t be able to pay.

    1. Don’t worry they will bill his family. And if they can’t pay…

      1. His family is not responsible for debts incurred by him.

        1. His estate is.

          1. wtf, do you think that’ll stop them from sending the bill? lol

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    1. “I’ve made $76,000”

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    2. Rex Iverson should have replied.

  9. But it’s like some radical libertarians like to ask as a thought experiment: what’s the penalty for a parking ticket? Why, death. Because failing to pay a parking ticket can set in motion a chain of events where, if you don’t start obeying, people will come with armed force to take you away, and use whatever force might be necessary to make you obey if you resist.

    Which shows the stupidity of their argument, since it implies that having any laws that are enforced carry the death penalty for violators.

    1. One simple question for you. When was the last time you got to vote on any law or ordinance. And if you wonder why someone might think a parking ticket could lead to the death penalty ask yourself why in Houston TX they sent a 7 man SWAT team to arrest a man for a $3000 30 year old student loan or a SWAT team to arrest a man because the city said his grass was over 6 in high.

    2. Saying that it’s stupid isn’t much of an argument. Why not tell us what’s wrong with the logic of the argument?

  10. No debtors prisons but now judges tell you pay and if you can’t you are held in contempt of court and sent to jail anyway. You can thank private prisons and human greed for this outrage.

    1. That’s only for criminal penalties and child support, not private debts.

      1. The path is a bit more involved. The creditor gets a judgment and then subpoena’s the debtor to come in for what (in Ohio at least) is called a judgement debtor exam. This is a ‘hearing’ in which the debtor is placed under oath and the creditor’s attorney asks them questions about what assets they may own, where they may work etc. Information that can be used to collect the debt. If the debtor refuses to show up, the judge can issue a warrant for failure to appear.

        That is the poena part of subpoena (under penalty). You are arrested for civil contempt, in other words ignoring a judge’s order to appear.

        Disclaimer, the process I describe is the Ohio process. Utah may have other things going on.

      2. and child support, not private debts.

        Child support isn’t a private debt? This sock isn’t even attempting to hide it’s tulpatude. D-

    2. Private prisons only make up 10% or less of U.S. prisons. Is a private prison involved in these particular cases? And exactly how do private prisons cause bench warrants to be made?

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  12. That pretty pathetic. The US Kangaroo Court system is a joke as are the jack@ss judges that run them.

    http://www.Anon-Net.tk

  13. As sad as this story is, the headline is too click baity for me. He was thrown in jail for failure to appear in court, not because he didn’t pay a debt. I realize the chain of events, but it’s misleading to say he was jailed for failure to pay a debt.

    1. It’s extraordinary that you fall for this foolishness. They call it a bench warrant to circumvent the Constitutional provision forbidding debtors’ prisons. Do you really think he was called into court to be let go?

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  15. RE: No Debtors Prison in America–Technically, At Least

    Of course there are no debtor prisons in America, just ask anyone who hasn’t paid alimony, child support or their taxes.

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  31. Absurd headline. We have already have huge debtors’ prisons in the U.S. On any given day 50,000 people are in jail for the inability to pay child support. The vast majority are in jail because they are too poor to pay. Their average income is a meager $11,000. There are 200,000 unique individuals in jail each year because of this, and many are in the support revolving door. Too poor to pay, jailed, billed for costs…. whatever minimum wage job they had is long gone by the time they got out, arrears accrue, arrested, jailed, and on and on.

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