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By Bryan Grundon

Can you go to jail for unpaid debt? Behind bars for skipping out on your bills? Technically, imprisonment for unpaid debt is unconstitutional.  In fact, the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act specifically prohibits debt collectors from threatening seizure of property or imprisonment on civil matters unless the ability to take such action is lawful and the creditor intends to take such action.

Because, just like life, with the Constitution and laws, there are caveats, and one or more of those may be the reason you, or someone you know, ended up locked behind bars.  

From employers refusing to pay employees to “deadbeat dads” skipping out on child support, the court has held that these individuals are in contempt of court and thus imprisoned for failing to pay debts.

In a 1948 California case involving employer Walter Trombley, the court held that an employer who willfully refuses to pay his employers, even though he has the ability to do so, could be held in contempt.

Imprisonment for debt was also addressed in Bradley v. Superior Court, a 1957 case in which a husband failed to pay spousal support to his ex-wife. In Bradley, the court stated that family support obligations did not constitute as normal debt and therefore did not fall under the constitutional prohibition of imprisonment for debt.

In Moss v. Superior, the father was ordered to pay child support based on a projected gross monthly income, since he was unemployed at the time of the court order. Yet, the mother claimed that he willfully refused to seek employment and was thus in violation of the court order.

The court held that the prohibition of debtor’s prison did not bar the court from finding the father in contempt of court and imposing jail time because the father had the ability to pay but willfully ignored the child support order.

In all of these cases there’s an underlying theme: the individual was aware of a court order requiring they pay a certain amount and chose to willfully ignore the order. Therefore, they were subject to the punishments reserved for contempt of court.

Our office has handled matters where a judgment debtor willfully refused to comply with a court’s order.  In one such case, we had obtained a money judgment on a promissory note secured by a Mercedes, and the judgment included an order directing the judgment debtor to turn over possession of the Mercedes. We served a copy of the Judgment on our debtor. He did not turn over the car so we sought the court’s help in enforcing the judgment. The court set an order to show cause for the judgment debtor on contempt. When the debtor failed to appear for the hearing the court found the judgment debtor in contempt order him to spend 7 days in jail if he did not comply with the court’s order within thirty days. On day 29 I arrived at the office to find a Mercedes key in the mail slot and the Mercedes parked in the lot.

Do you have a judgment that seems uncollectable? We can help you find that individual, serve them and bring them to court. Contact Bryan M. Grundon today.