Letter Re: Recent “Debtors Prison” Articles

The Economatrix recently posted this article link: Welcome to Debtor’s Prison, 2011 Edition. I’ve read others like it and I feel compelled to comment.  In most states in the union someone cannot be sentenced to jail merely for owing money to someone else.  But in some states, you can, when it comes to child support and alimony. In these cases, a judgment creditor (spouse) can almost literally take the shirt off your back (even in my pro-debtor Texas) and send you to jail, sometimes facing felony charges.

If you read the article carefully, you will see that despite the use of terms like “debt related warrants” and “exploiting the court system”, what these people have been jailed for is contempt of court for ignoring court orders to appear.  

When someone wins a judgment against someone else, the plaintiff has a number of collection tools available to him.  As an example, Interrogatories in Aid of Judgment consist of a lengthy series of written questions that must be answered by the defendant – questions about his assets, savings, etc.  These and other documents can be served on the defendant and he must answer them.  If he does not, the judgment plaintiff can file a motion with the court to hold the defendant in contempt.  At that point the court will order the defendant to appear at a contempt hearing and if that order is ignored, the judge will issue a warrant.  And why not?  The defendant has essentially thumbed his nose at the court!  

About one of the jailed defendants the story said, “Mr. Stearns said he never got the summons or two orders to show up before a judge that a deputy sheriff said in court filings were delivered to him.”  

Are we really to believe that a sheriff’s deputy has lied on three different occasions about successfully serving the same person?  I’m not buying it.  There is absolutely no advantage to the deputy in lying about such a thing.  I think this guy was served and simply thought he could ignore it.  Once jailed he made the only claim he could that wouldn’t involve admitting guilt:  he said he was never served.  

One could debate this subject all day long but folks who win in court deserve to get paid – or at least deserve to be able to determine to their satisfaction that the defendant simply can’t pay – and inability to pay isn’t a crime.  Remember that it’s not just evil credit card companies and predatory lenders seeking to be paid:  It could be any one of us who was wronged by a rip-off mechanic or contractor (I’ve had to sue someone before).  

The bottom line for your readers (and these days it might affect more than a few of them):  Don’t ignore anything from a court!  You will not go to jail for an inability to pay a debt no matter what the amount or who it is owed to.  You will go to jail for contempt if you ignore an order to provide information or to obey a summons!  – Matt R.