No — they can’t put you in jail for owing money, but there’s more than one way to lock someone up.
You receive notice in the mail that a warrant for your arrest has been issued by the court where you should have gone for some kind of hearing in connection with monies you owed on one of your credit cards. You know that they had sued you some time ago after you had ignored their calls and letters regarding your outstanding balance that was then already several months overdue. Your reaction is that something must be wrong because from the time you arrived in this country from Jamaica you had been told that in America no one went to prison for owing money. However, since it appears to be an official notice you know you have to do something about it.
You call your friend who seems to always have the answer to everything and he tells you its all foolishness because “They don’t send people to prison in America just because they owe money.” Your friend advises you to ignore it because it could not be correct. You are still bothered about this warrant and decide to call a criminal lawyer who had represented you in a misdemeanor case a few years ago. He tells you that he has no idea how you could be locked up just because you owe some money. However, he also warns you that the notice should not be ignored because even if the police are unlikely to come to your home and take you away in handcuffs, the fact is that you may be stopped for a minor traffic violation and when the officers checked your record this outstanding warrant could come up and you could be arrested. He urges you not to ignore the warrant and refers you to a lawyer who handles civil cases. You call the civil lawyer and make an appointment to see him. His secretary explains his rate per hour and you agree to pay for an hour of his time in advance. She also tells you that the attorney will want to see all the court papers you have received in connection with this matter.
You put together all the court papers you received and go to the lawyer’s office at the appointed time. You meet the lawyer and before you can ask any questions he tells you he wants to see the papers. He looks them over and tells you that the papers clearly show that you are subject to arrest at anytime because a warrant has been issued by a judge at the Beverly Hills courthouse and wants to know what your questions are. You tell him that ever since you have been in this country you had been told that you can’t go to jail just because you owe money. He looks at you and starts to smile.
“We are from the same country and I also heard the same thing when I came here, but my friend it is not that simple,” the lawyer says. “Lenders and their lawyers have figured how to deal with that problem.”
Then he goes through your documents and points the fact that when you were sued by the company you simply ignored the lawsuit because you could not afford a lawyer to prepare and file an answer. Since you did not believe it would mean anything other than another red mark on your already damaged credit rating you weren’t worried about not answering within the 30 day time period allowed. This allowed the company lawyers to file a request to enter a default against you on the morning of the 31st day.
The lawyer explains that some of these law firms who collect debts for these companies have their people at the courthouse on the 31st day after service of the compliant just waiting for the filing window to open so that they can file the request to enter default. They know the people going through a financial meltdown tend to put their heads in the sand and ignore these complaints. Once the default was entered cutting off your right to respond to the complaint, the lawyers then sent you a notice to be present at what is called a debtor’s hearing or interview at which every aspect of your finances is made public in every embarrassing detail. Lawyers for lenders also know that the people who allow a default to be entered against them are not likely to want to go to the courthouse for these interviews and will not show up. However, the notice telling you to appear for the debtor’s interview is a Court Order.
This means that your failure to show up for the hearing is essentially disobeying a Court Order and this disobedience is what caused the warrant for your arrest to be issued. “You are right,” he tells you, “you cannot be locked just because you owe money in this country, but there are more than one ways to skin a cat.”
Finally, he points out that the lawyers who do this work for lenders are operating on a contingency basis. The lenders are not paying them and they only get paid a percentage of what they collect. Because of this, he tells you, they are always open to reaching an agreement that would end up with you paying a smaller amount over an extended period of time. Because of this he urges you to call the collections lawyer and try to make a deal.
You thank him for the information and as you are leaving his office he tells you that the American saying you should be keeping in mind is that “There are no free lunches.” He puts it another way, too: They will get you one way or another.
Sounds familiar? What’s your story?
Write me at: Richard.Lowe@caribpress.com
Richard Lowe, Esq. is a contributer to Carib press
Photo by LA Beez