While you cannot go to jail for owing a bill or even refusing to pay one, an outstanding debt can land you in jail if you are sued and you miss a court hearing. This has caused quite a bit of confusion among consumers who may believe they were jailed for simply owing the bill.
How a Lawsuit for a Past Due Bill Can Turn Into Jail Time
If a creditor or debt collector sues you to collect on a past due bill and you do not respond in writing or appear at hearing to dispute the debt, it will obtain a default judgment against you for the amount it claims you owe. Answering or appearing in court may also result in a judgment against you if the creditor can prove that you do in fact owe the debt. Once the creditor has a judgment, it is then entitled to collect on that judgment through additional court proceedings which may allow it to garnish your wages or put a lien on your property. In order to do this, the creditor must ask the court for a hearing and send you a notice to appear at said hearing. During the hearing, the creditor will ask you about your job and assets, and if you have any, may then ask the court for an order to garnish your wages or permission to put a lien on your property. If you fail to appear at this hearing to answer questions about your wages and assets, the creditor may then ask the court for a civil warrant, or body attachment. Courts do not generally issue civil warrants the first time a defendant fails to appear for hearing, but will reset the hearing for a later date and send you a second order to appear. Eventually, failing to appear for these hearings may allow the creditor to obtain a warrant for your arrest.
Civil Warrants or Body Attachments
The police do not generally go looking for you because you have a civil warrant or body attachment, as they are called in some states, as they may with a criminal warrant, but will simply arrest you the first time you come into contact with them for some other reason. So, you may be arrested the next time you are pulled over or go into a police station to conduct some type of business. Once you are arrested on a civil warrant, you may post bond in whatever amount the court set when the warrant was issued, and your bond money will go to the creditor to count towards payment on the judgment. If you do not voluntarily make additional payments on the judgment, the creditor may then begin the process to collect on the judgment all over again, and if you fail to appear again, may get another body attachment issued and end up in jail once again. You can prevent this by simply appearing in court any time you receive an order to appear and answering the creditor's questions about your wages and assets.
If you are being harassed or abused by a creditor or debt collector please contact our office at 1-800-219-3577, for a free, no obligation consultation.