The American Civil Liberties Union has released research that the organization says shows judges in Georgia and other states have issued arrest warrants for alleged debtors at the request of private debt collectors.
The group’s report, called “A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt,” documents arrests over private debt in 25 states and Puerto Rico.
The ACLU said in a news release Wednesday that this is the first-ever report on the extent and impact of cooperation between courts and the private debt collection industry nationwide.
“Private corporations should never use our taxpayer-funded criminal justice system to jail us, take away our freedom, or take us from our families, communities, and jobs simply because we may owe them money,” ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young said in the news release. “Yet, throughout our nation and the state of Georgia, powerful corporations have turned our taxpayer-funded prosecutors, judges, sheriff’s, police, and courts into their own private collection agents. This practice betrays our fundamental constitutional principles of due process and equal protection under the law. We must and can stop this unlawful use of our government’s resources.”
“A Pound of Flesh” contends that, although Congress abolished debtors’ prisons in 1833, private debt collectors are using the government’s power to arrest and jail people who may owe money, even when a debt is in dispute or when the ability to pay is nonexistent. These alleged debts may be as small as a few dollars and may include every kind of consumer debt, such as utility bills, medical fees, car payments or student loans, the ACLU said.
The report documented a Georgia woman arrested while caring for her terminally ill mother. A debt collection company had bought a six-year-old rental debt her landlord claimed she owed after evicting her from her mobile home. The woman said she had never been served notice of a lawsuit, but a collector requested contempt proceedings for her failure to answer the interrogatories, and a magistrate court issued a warrant for her arrest, according to the ACLU. She was handcuffed in front of her children and jailed overnight, and her mother died two days later, the organization said.
An estimated 77 million Americans—1 in 3 adults—have a debt that has been turned over to a private collection agency, according to the report.
The document provides recommendations for state legislatures, court rules committees, local district attorneys and the state attorneys general to protect people.
“The tyranny of the private debt collection industry causes financial ruin for people already struggling to make ends meet, and courts are willing to routinely violate people’s due process rights to do debt collectors’ dirty work,” Jennifer Turner, author of the report and the ACLU’s principal human rights researcher, said in a news release Wednesday. “Our courts have become mills for these companies, approving without evaluating scores of arrest warrants, wage garnishments, property seizures, default judgments, and other legal actions against consumers accused by debt collectors of owing money.”
The ACLU, according to the release, analyzed more than 1,000 cases in which judges issued arrest warrants for alleged debtors, sometimes without checking whether the person has the ability to pay. More than 90 percent of consumer debt litigation ends with a default judgment in favor of the collector because the defendant didn’t contest the case, the ACLU said. Most don’t appear in court to defend themselves, often because they don’t know how or because they never received notice of the suit, the ACLU said.
“Almost all of the people targeted by debt collectors can’t afford attorneys,” Turner said. “The right to counsel often doesn’t apply in such cases, but it should. A lawyer can make all the difference when people are facing powerful debt collectors in league with prosecutors and judges.”