No Debtors Prison in America–Technically, At Least

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


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


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.