In a story that’s gone viral for its timeliness — student loan debt in the U.S. has long since passed the trillion-dollar mark — the man tells Houston’s FOX 26 that he was recently arrested by a group of seven U.S. Marshals accompanied by an attorney for a private debt collector, all for a $1,500 loan he took out back in 1987.
But what the news piece does not make clear is exactly why the man was being arrested. You don’t go to jail for simply owing money — otherwise every person who misses a payment on their credit card would be at risk for arrest.
However, as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau explains, if a debt collector goes to court and gets a judgment against you, you can be arrested if you refuse a court order to appear.
Of course, we’ve seen numerous stories of people who never receive any sort of documentation — court summonses, invoices, collections notices — until it’s too late. And the man in this case says he had not heard anything about this unpaid loan for nearly three decades, so it is entirely possible that he was not ignoring a court order, but that he simply never received one.
[UPDATE: Sources familiar with this situation tell Consumerist that the arrest of the man in Texas was indeed a case of failure to appear in court, and not simply because he’d failed to pay the debt.]
Some critics argue that having a debtor arrested for ignoring a bench warrant ultimately has the same effect of threatening to arrest a debtor in the first place. Some, including Texas Congressman Gene Green, are questioning the need to send multiple, armed U.S. Marshals to enforce a warrant in a debt collection case.
We’ve reached out to the U.S. Department of Education for more clarification on this story and will update if we hear anything back.