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.
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.