In the early days of this country it was common for debtors to be imprisoned until their debt was paid. Popular history records that the last debtors’ prison was closed in the 19th century and the practice of incarcerating a person on account of a debt was abolished. However, the prohibition against debtors’ prison has always had its loopholes; the most well-known examples are tax evasion and child support delinquency. In one case a former corporate lawyer, H. Beatty Chadwick, was imprisoned for more than 14 years for failing to turn over money related to a divorce case. The judge who released him decided that after 14 years Mr. Chadwick either could not or would not pay.
Since the start of the recession more debtors are being arrested for not paying debts. The Washington Post reports that “more than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed.” This process generally occurs after an individual fails to show up to court, but sometimes results from failing to make court-ordered payments to a creditor. In one case the Post reports that a 26 year old woman was arrested for failing to show up to a court hearing over a $1,159.87 credit card debt. When she posted a $500 bond, that money was turned over to the creditor.
While many state judges appear to be using the power of their office to influence debtors to pay their creditors, these judges cannot circumvent the power of the federal bankruptcy laws. When a debtor files bankruptcy, all debts owed prior to the date of the bankruptcy fall under the jurisdiction of the federal bankruptcy judge. All state court proceedings must automatically stop, including the execution of a state court contempt of court warrant to coerce payment. This automatic stay is a very powerful protection and gives the debtor a chance to propose a plan to either discharge the debt or repay it over time.
If you are threatened with a lawsuit, don’t ignore it. Speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney and learn how the federal bankruptcy laws can protect your income, your property, and even your freedom.