Can a Debt Collector have Me Arrested?

Debtor’s prison is the least of your concerns in collection.

The idea of going to prison because of debt is actually central in American history. After all, in the 18th and 19th centuries, over half all all prisoners in England were there for unpaid debt and colonization of the Americas began with these prisoners.[1] Once the colonies took root, many debtors became indentured servants in order to settle what they owed, or they fled to the U.S. to escape their debts.[2]

But once debtor’s prison was abolished in the U.S. in the 1830’s, by and large all jail time over owed money ceased. So if a collector threatens you with jail time, they’re almost always violating the law and you have a right to fight back. If you’re dealing with threatens of prison over your unpaid debts, don’t take it. Call us or complete the form to connect with the right experts for your situation.

You can’t go to jail for unpaid consumer debts

Whether it’s a loan, a credit card, your mortgage, a payday loan – it doesn’t matter. No collection on any consumer debt will end in jail time. It just doesn’t happen. You cannot be detained, jailed, forced into community service or work programs, or anything of the like over your unpaid debts.

What’s more, according to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, it’s actually illegal for a debt collector to threaten you with any jail time. As a result, you can file a complaint and even sue a collector for violating the FDCPA if the make threats of this kind. So note the violations and make sure to report it. If you want to fight back, we can help you connect with professionals to do just that.

Warning: Don’t ignore court orders

It’s critical to note that there is one very specific way that a consumer debt can land you in jail – and it’s not because of the debt, itself.

In some states if you fail to appear or follow the instructions of a civil court order related to your debt,  then you can be found in contempt of court. As a result, a warrant can be issued for your arrest because you ignored the court’s orders. You still don’t go to jail because of the debt – you go as a result of your actions related to the collector’s attempt to sue you in civil court.

Fact: This type of warrant can be issued even if the debt is past the statute of limitations.

So while you can dodge collectors and try to get out of paying a debt if that’s your decision, you should never ignore court summons related to debt. You’re only making a bad situation worse. And with the fact above, even if the debt is past the statute of limitations for collection, you still have to appear and prove that to the court.

Why some claim debtor’s prison is back

Consumer debts that go through civil court are one thing – and as detailed above, you can’t really go to jail for not paying these debts. But there are some situations where money you owe can land in you jail.

The first instance comes when you fail to pay court-ordered child support. Not only can you be jailed for failure to appear when it comes to child support hearings, if you can’t reasonably explain why you’re dodging the obligation, the judge can have you thrown in jail. The unpaid support actually counts as contempt of court, because the court ordered you to pay.

Fact: Jail time for unpaid child support can be up to six months.

The other instance when you can be thrown in jail for failure to pay has to do with court orders, too. If you have court fees or fines, you can be sent to jail for failure to pay these “debts”. So if you have a criminal court ruling against you and you’re ordered to pay court fees or fines, then you can be jailed for not paying that. This has led critics and organizations like the ACLU to claim that “debtor’s prison is back.”