Debt Collection Companies Have Hijacked the Justice System

Denise Zencka, a mother of three in Indiana, had to file for bankruptcy because she couldn’t afford to repay her bills for treatment for thyroid cancer. And because she was unable to work, she had to stay with her parents in Florida while she recovered. She didn’t know that during that time, at the request of a debt collector seeking to collect outstanding medical bills, a small claims court judge had issued three warrants for her arrest. When she returned to Indiana, she was arrested by local sheriff’s deputies for the private debt she owed. Once at the jail, and being too sick to climb the stairs to the women’s section, she was held in a men’s mental health unit. Its glass walls allowed the male prisoners to watch everything she did, including using the toilet.

As in Zencka’s case, and in thousands of other similar cases around the country, courts are issuing arrest warrants and serving as taxpayer-funded tools of the multi-billion-dollar debt collection industry.

Debtors’ prisons were abolished by Congress in 1833. They are often thought to be a relic of the Dickensian past. In reality, private debt collectors are using the courts to get debtors arrested and to terrorize them into paying, even when a debt is in dispute or when the debtor has no ability to pay.

Tens of thousands of arrest warrants are issued annually for people who fail to appear in court to deal with unpaid civil debt judgments. In investigating this issue for the new ACLU report, “A Pound of Flesh,” we examined more than 1,000 cases in 26 states, in which civil court judges issued arrest warrants for debtors. The debtors were often unaware that they had been sued. In many cases, they had not received notice to show up in court.

Read the Report

Arrest warrants were issued in cases involving every kind of consumer debt or loan, including debts as small as $28. People have been arrested for debts arising from medical fees, federal and private student loans, car payments, unpaid rent, daycare fees, small-business loans, credit card bills, foreclosure deficiencies, high-interest payday loans, and gym fees, to name just a few types.

The process starts when a debt collector files a lawsuit, and it snowballs from there. Each year, collectors flood small-claims and other state courts with millions of suits seeking repayment. Many courts churn through collection suits with almost no scrutiny. Over 95 percent of debt collection suits end in favor of the collector, usually because alleged debtors do not or cannot mount a defense.

Then, with a judgment in hand, creditors can ask courts to require the person to show up in court for “judgment debtor examinations,” at which they are required to answer questions about their finances and assets. If the debtor does not appear for the exam, debt collectors can ask the judge to issue a civil warrant for the debtor’s arrest.

Our investigation found that many people missed their court dates because of work, childcare responsibilities, lack of transportation, physical disability, illness, or because they didn’t receive notification of the court date. We found two cases in which elderly women missed hearings because they were terminally ill. They died shortly after warrants were issued for their arrest. The threat of arrest is an incredibly powerful tactic for collectors. As one lawyer in Texas, who has sought arrests of student loan borrowers, has noted, “It’s easier to settle when the debtor is under arrest.”

Once arrested, a debtor may languish in jail for days until he can arrange to pay bail. Judges sometimes set bail at the exact amount of the judgment. And the bail money often is turned over to the debt collector or creditor as payment against the judgment.

Even when people aren’t arrested, warrants can cause long-lasting harm because they may be entered into background check databases, with serious consequences for future employment, housing applications, education opportunities, and access to security clearances.

Predatory debt collection companies are profiting from Americans who are trapped in debt and on the financial edge as a result of the loss of a job, illness, the death of a family member, or a divorce. The impact of abusive collection practices is particularly harmful to Black and Latino communities, which face longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.

There is scant protection from collection abuses under federal and state laws. And even when there are laws in place, abuses remain largely unchecked because regulators rarely intervene to stop them. Unless that changes, the most vulnerable debtors will continue to be victimized by predatory collectors and courts that serve them.

For more on this issue, click here.

Do you have a warrant issued or threatened in a private debt collection case? If so please contact us at PrivateDebtReport@aclu.org.

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Anonymous

Overturning "Citizens United" and a better Campaign Finance Reform system is also part of the story. Most poor people don't have lobbyists wtiting laws for them in Congress and state legislatures.

Anonymous

What this article either purposely or negligently fails to point out is that nobody is getting jailed for owing a debt. They are being jailed for disobeying a court order. Our economy depends on the court system so debts can be collected or banks would not be able to lend money at the favorable interest rates many are fortunate enough to obtain.

Todd Schurman

The person who wrote this article is a an idiot, what happens if you don't pay for that hundred dollars basket full of food, you get ARRESTED, so if you use a credit card or a loan and you don't pay for it is the same thing. You took something that you don't pay for and that's the same as taking food then not paying for it so why shouldn't you be put in jail

Anonymous

If you’d actually read the article, you’d have learned that debtors prisons were abolished in America in the 19th century. It’s a simple fact that anyone can confirm elsewhere. So, your ignorance is showing.

Anonymous

This article is ridiculous! I have owned a collection agency for 40 years and can tell you that we have never once used this tactic to collect a account! If the consumer is in jail that means they can't work to pay the bill. The quote from supposedly a debt collector " It's easier to collect if they are in jail "is ridiculous!" My question is what is the email address at the bottom of the article? Ten to one this is fake news trying to convince the consumer to pay them who they don't owe, instead of who they do owe!

Anonymous

You have an opinion but your facts are off, are you trying to make a point that just because you harass people, but not so much as to put them in jail that your oh' what did you call it? oh' I got it Collection Agency and you are different? well where is the connection to the subject at hand? because the woman was aware she had taken ill went home to stay with a parent WHEN WELL moved back home, and at that time because of Warrants were arrested for medical bills that some COLLECTION Agency had taken her to court for, the facts are Hospitals get a tax write off for all bill a person's unable to pay and we taxpayers are stuck with making up for any loses, I HOPE THIS WOMAN sues every one of you.

Anonymous

I work for a debt collector. Collectors employ thousands of Americans. If you can’t pay back the 10’s of thousands of dollars you are happy to spend on credit, how about not buying things you really don’t need?

Kimberly Roberts

For what it's worth, we fight these issues as much as possible and yet the ACLU sent out the supreme court justice flyer a day AFTER the primary! Though the causes are more than important, a day late will never cut it. I'm ashamed!

Anonymous

I find it incredible that even when folks are on their death bed they are somehow still supposed to pony up money for a debt. Let's keep in mind that some of these debts could in fact be zombie debts and unless the consumer is aware that a debtor can no longer go after them for a debt once it is pass the statute of limitations, these crooked debt collectors can and will take consumers to court. How beneficial is it to our society to jail citizens for a private loan from 5 years ago? How does our country move forward when a sudden increase of our citizens are not only being criminalized but due to these cruel tactics from the debt collector now have criminal records for debt. Big business can still function just fine and have screwed over hundreds of thousands of people and yet our own citizens who for a multitude of reasons are now being criminalized for falling on hard times? And yes I do believe that many of these debt collectors do not properly serve legal documents making it impossible for any citizen to actually answer the summons. I have my own example of being summoned for a payday loan of 250 dollars. The company sent papers to an old address that I had already moved from a week later. They then claimed that I refused to respond and wanted the full amount and then some. Thankfully I was able to have that information forwarded to me and let the court know why I didn't respond during the time I was supposed to.

Anonymous

Who prosecutes people/organizations who created a situation entrapping a US Citizen by targeting them, and then perusing them through constant harassment forcing them into a bankruptcy? (The ACLU, or the FBI, by filing charges in Federal Court.)

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