In which US states can somebody be arrested for an outstanding debt?
April 13, 2012 2:47 AM   Subscribe

In which US states can somebody be arrested for an outstanding debt?

This WSJ article claims that "More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can't or won't pay to be jailed. " - The Wikipedia article quotes heavily from it and two other articles that, in turn, reference the WSJ article.

Between the three articles and the ACLU report, I've found six states mentioned: Indiana, Tennessee, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington. Any idea which ones the others are?
posted by Orb2069 to Law & Government (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Your list:
+New Jersey

Looks like it's only de facto legal in six states, as mentioned in the WSJ, however in the other cases, it's often 'legal wrinkles'. Whatever that means.

Apparently, there is a bill under consideration for an IRS debtor's prison.
posted by nickrussell at 3:27 AM on April 13, 2012

Best answer: Indiana
New Jersey
posted by Houstonian at 3:34 AM on April 13, 2012

Best answer: Okay, you're missing something pretty important here. I don't think there's a single US state that permits anyone to be put in jail for being in debt. Not as such.

What the law in many states does permit is for someone to be put in jail for defying a court order. This means either refusing to pay when one has the means, or, more commonly, declining to show up in court when one has been ordered to do so. Most of these warrants are simply arrest warrants, designed to get the defendant to just show in in court. They don't generally result in jail time unless a defendant has

The former is, I should think, rather unobjectionable. But the latter can be problematic, because as the article discusses, creditors frequently don't take all that much care to ensure that debtors are actually served with court papers. So the first time that a debtor may hear about it is when the cops show up. Clearly, this is sub-optimal.

But you need to be crystal clear that there is a huge distinction between the subject matter of the WSJ article and the ACLU report. The former discusses traditional debtors, i.e., people with credit cards, car payments, mortgages, etc. The latter discusses people who owe court-ordered fines and costs. These are almost always fines or other penalties imposed as part of a judicial sentence. The ACLU report has nothing whatsoever to do with borrowers as traditionally understood.

Now, throwing someone in jail for failing to pay a fine for a burglary charge is problematic, but it is not the same thing as imprisoning someone for failing to pay off their credit card. I don't think there's a state in the country that permits that. So you want to be sure you understand what you're talking about.
posted by valkyryn at 6:03 AM on April 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

Came to say what valkyryn did, that summary is probably a better job than I would have done.
posted by gimonca at 6:29 AM on April 13, 2012

*unless a defendant has repeatedly refused a court order that the court knows the defendant is aware of. Even then, most civil judges really don't like throwing people in jail. Criminal judges are a whole different kettle of fish.
posted by valkyryn at 6:41 AM on April 13, 2012

Approaching this from the other side, here is an article about proposed legislation to “limit ‘modern debtors' prison’” in Washington, which describes the situation briefly:
The bill would not bar collection agencies from asking judges to issue civil bench warrants for the arrest of debtors who fail to show up for hearings, which Stanford originally sought to do. But it would prohibit collectors from seizing jailed debtors’ bail money to pay off the debt. In addition, it would require more detailed notice to debtors, and would increase the amount of personal assets exempt from garnishment
This basically agrees with valkyryn's description. The article goes into more detail later. Disclaimer: I'm not at all familiar with Crosscut, so I don't know if they're reliable on this subject.
posted by hattifattener at 11:46 AM on April 13, 2012

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