I woke up yesterday morning to a discussion on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes billed as “the return of debtor’s prisons”: people in America are actually being sent to prison for failure to pay debts. It seems impossible to imagine, but it’s true, and it can happen right here in Washington state.
If a Washington state citizen is sued for a medical bill or other type of debt and she/he does nothing, the court will enter a default judgment against them. In Washington, many of these lawsuits are served without case numbers, so people assume that the summons and complaint is not a real court document that they have to respond to–surely you yourself have received more than a few highly official-looking mailings that turned out to be BS sales pitches. Unfortunately, these summonses are real, and the creditor or debt collector will enter a default judgment without your knowledge if you don’t respond within twenty days of being served. In some cases, in fact, the debtor is not actually served with the lawsuit at all, and rather is a victim of something we informally call “sewer service”: the process server says he or she served the debtor with the suit but never actually did it–the equivalent of just throwing the summons into the sewer. So a borrower may get a lawsuit default without ever getting sued.
The “debtor’s prison” aspect of the situation comes in when the creditor subpoenas the borrower for a “Supplemental Proceedings” hearing. This hearing is mandatory, and failure to heed the subpoena may lead to a bench warrant (an order for the arrest of an individual who has failed to appear at a legal proceeding). The borrower may never know about the bench warrant until they are pulled over for a traffic violation or are stopped at the U.S. border after a weekend vacation in Vancouver, B.C. Continue reading