In U.S., debt is not a jailable offense

Posted June 15, 2010, at 11:46 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The United States hasn’t had any debtors prisons since the 1800s, but recent media reports and unscrupulous practices by some debt collection agencies have created panic with more than a few Maine consumers.

Published stories out of Minnesota suggest that people are being routinely thrown in jail for failure to pay debts.

Not only is that not the whole story, it’s not true, according to Will Lund, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, and some area lawyers.

“The stories did a disservice right from the start,” said Lund. “First of all, they preyed on concerns or fears we’re returning to debtors prisons. The reporter either didn’t know or didn’t understand what happened.

“Second, it glossed over the most important factor: that consumers are not being put in jail for not paying their debts. Rather, they can be jailed for ignoring directives to appear in court.”

Both Lund and Bangor attorney David Szewczyk, who has represented both creditors and debtors in legal disputes, say there’s a simple way to boil it all down and filter out the confusion: A person cannot be jailed for owing money, but a person can be jailed for disobeying the court or an order to appear in court.

“In simplest terms, the worst thing you can do is ignore something,” said Szewczyk, a personal injury lawyer who has been practicing law for 19 years, the past 14 in Bangor.

Both Lund and Szewczyk encourage people to check with a lawyer, call the local courthouse, or consult a legal service if they receive an official-looking notice threatening legal action for nonpayment of debt.

“People really shouldn’t make those decisions by themselves,” said Lund. “Just take it down to court or Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Bangor or a lawyer they know.

“I heard one of my staffers talking to a woman who had been threatened by a debt collector with out-of-state legal action or incarceration, so it is happening,” he said.

Lund said he knows of some instances where debt collectors have used legal logos or icons on mailings to try to deceive people into paying debts by making them think they’re in legal trouble.

“These and other overt or implied practices are violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which is not only a federal law, but also the same law on the books in Maine,” said Lund.

Consumers have several forms of protection against unfair debt collection practices. Debt collectors must be licensed to operate in Maine and cannot initiate lawsuits in Maine as they can in some other states. Only the owner of the debt can do that, Lund said.

Consumers have two chances to address failure to pay lawsuits. The first is a 20-day period in which a defendant has the opportunity to respond to a complaint in writing. Second, they can appear in court in person.

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