Do we still have debtor's prisons?

Edrie Pfeiffer
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Edrie Pfeiffer, Bankruptcy & Divorce Attorney

    Many years ago, like a couple of centuries, it was common to throw someone in jail when they could not pay their debts. These jails were referred to as “Debtor’s Prison”. You were held in jail until you could pay your debts. Kind of a strange situation isn’t it, you can’t pay your debts so they throw you in jail where you can’t work until you pay your debts. How are you supposed to pay your debts when you can’t go to work? Fortunately, over a hundred years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that debtor’s prisons were not constitutional.     

    There are still some similar to debtor’s prisons in many state though. I think everyone realizes that you can be thrown in jail if you fail to make child support payments. If you have child or spousal support payment that you are behind on, you can deal with that through a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy. If you have been ordered to pay criminal fines and fail to make those payments, a Judge may order that you be sentenced to a time in jail as a sanction for failing to make the payments.

    You can also face jail time over a debt. If you fail to pay a debt, the creditor can sue you and obtain a judgment against you. The creditor will then try to collect on the debt through a garnishment against your wages and/or your bank account. If they are unable to collect on the garnishment, they will want to find out where they should be garnishing you. To do this, the creditor will have the Court issue a Summons To Answer Interrogatories. This is a fancy legal way of saying the creditor wants to ask you questions under oath. On the Summons is a statement that says you must appear at the hearing and if you fail to appear, you can be fined or imprisoned. If you fail to appear at the hearing, the next step will be for the Court to issue a Summons to Show Cause. This is an Order from the Court to appear and explain to the Judge why you didn’t appear at the previous hearing. If the Judge doesn’t like your answer, he has the power to have you thrown in jail as a penalty for violating the previous Court Order. While this is rarely done in Virginia, the Court does have the power to enforce it’s orders through jail time.

    Another version of debtor’s prison is an arrest warrant for car theft. In recent years, we have seen a number of car creditors file criminal charges for auto theft when they were unable to repossess a vehicle. If you are failing to make the monthly payments on a car loan, you should not try to hide the car from the creditor. They have a legal right to repossess it and if you block that right, they can press charges against you for theft. These are very serious charges and may be difficult to defend. If you or someone know is behind on car payments, come and talk to me about it. There are ways to keep a car through a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

    Our modern bankruptcy system provides individuals with a way to deal with the vast majority of their debts. While filing for bankruptcy should never be taken lightly, it is a far better alternative than debtor’s prison. If you are struggling with debts and facing law suits over unpaid bills, I can help you. Contact me for a consultation today or call us at 757-320-2010.