Disclaimer – We are not lawyers or tax professionals and we are not giving legal or tax advice. These are merely some options and information about taxes. Consult an attorney or tax professional in your area to determine all your options.
Jail for Not Paying Consumer Debt
Consumer debt like credit card balances, loans or hospital bills are technically not jail-able offenses. If a debt collector is threatening you with jail, you are being harassed. This is illegal under the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA). However, many states have made it easier for creditors to use the court system to put debtors in jail.
Technically, imprisoning someone for the inability to pay consumer debts is illegal. However, you can be held in contempt of court for failing to comply with in-court examinations or payment plans. Local judges in 44 states can issue warrants for debtors who don’t show up for post-judgement appearances or do not provide information on personal finances.
Another wrinkle is that in over 200 counties, sheriff and police departments allow private debt collectors to use the prosecutor’s official letterhead to threaten debtors.
How to Avoid Jail for Credit Card Debt
Creditors and debt collectors have a clear series of steps to take before jail becomes a possibility. First, you can get sued in civil court for money. DO NOT ignore the summons letter from the court if you receive one.
Second, the debt collector must prove it is your debt and the judge must rule in their favor. If this happens, the court may garnish wages or intercept a tax refund. The only time that jail time can become a possibility is if you do not obey the court!
If a debt collector has filed a lawsuit against you, DO NOT ignore the paperwork. If you cannot pay, just showing up may convince the creditor to drop their civil lawsuit against you. The summons from the court will have clear instructions on what to do.
If you are receiving threatening letters from debt collectors, you should read our article How to deal with debt collectors if you can’t pay
Protect yourself by
- Responding to the notices and orders from the court
- Go to any court-ordered appearances like post-judgment hearings and debtor’s examinations.
- Find a consumer attorney or the state attorney general’s consumer division for information.
- As a last resort, you may be able to file for bankruptcy.
You cannot go to jail for not being able to pay, but you can go to jail for ignoring the court.
Jail for Not Paying Civil Fines or Criminal Justice Debt
If you don’t have the money to pay court costs or fines, the outcome depends on your state of residence. The Supreme Court declared that jailing someone for inability to pay court costs and fines is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, some state and local courts assess fees, fines and costs as part of the sentence, probation or parole. If you can not pay these assessments, you may be sent to jail.
According to the ACLU, states where you can go to jail for debt include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.
Can I Go to The Police If Someone Owes Me Money?
No. Law enforcement is concerned with criminal law, not civil law. If someone owes you money and won’t pay, your only resource is to sue them in court. Most people are familiar with small claims courts after watching the many Judge Judy style shows on TV. States set an upper monetary limit, from $2,000 to $10,000, for cases fined in small claims courts. You don’t need a lawyer and court costs are generally far less expensive. Claims that exceed the maximum limit are heard in superior court.
Your steps to file a small claim suit include:
- Meeting the jurisdictional requirements for the court
- Does the amount you want to recover fall within the state maximums
- You must then file in the proper venue (county where it occurred)
- Fill out all paperwork
- Have the papers served (may entail a small fee)
- File a proof of service with the court so the court knows the other party has received all paperwork
- Document your claim
- Go to the court hearing
If you are dealing with the IRS, you really need a professional to represent you. Hiring a qualified tax attorney can make a huge difference. We are not experts in tax law and are not providing advice.
If you are dealing with criminal justice debt, your best recourse may be to contact the ACLU.
If you are dealing with civil court and debt collectors, you may want to contact an attorney or find a low-income legal adviser. If you live near a law school, students are often available to help with advice.
Pacific Debt, Inc
Before you declare bankruptcy, you may want to contact the debt settlement professionals at Pacific Debt, Inc. If you’d like more information on debt settlement or have more than $10,000 in credit card debt that you can’t pay, contact Pacific Debt, Inc. We may be able to help you become debt free in 2 to 4 years. We have settled over $250 million in debt for our customers since 2002.
Pacific Debt, Inc is accredited with the American Fair Credit Council and is an A+ member of the Better Business Bureau. We rate very highly in Top Consumer Reviews, Top Ten Reviews, Consumers Advocate, Consumer Affairs, Trust Pilot, and US News and World Report.
For more information, contact one of our debt specialists today. The initial consultation is free, and our debt experts will give you all your options.