KCTV5 Investigations: Modern Debtors' Prison - KCTV5 News

KCTV5 Investigations: Modern Debtors' Prison

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Trouble paying for a bed and computer did more than just hurt one man's credit score.

"I went to jail for missing a furniture payment," James Davis tells KCTV5's Stacey Cameron.

And now he is suing in federal court over the way he was treated.

Davis, like millions of Americans, lost his job during the Great Recession.  Many people who fell on hard economic times are facing collections companies taking extreme steps to collect debts.  In some cases, those unpaid bills have led to jail.

Davis' financial woes began when he purchased a bed, mattress and computer.

"I had a revolving account with Nebraska Furniture and, of course, I purchased some items," he recalls.

But Davis then lost his job.

"I fell behind in payments to some of my creditors and one of them happened to be Nebraska Furniture Mart. And then eventually they turned my account over to a collection agent, which happened to be a law firm," Davis said. "I didn't dispute the account."

The law firm, Evans & Mullinix, sued Davis in Wyandotte County and won a $1,987 judgment, plus interest and attorney fees totaling $827.90. Davis then got a job and worked to pay down the debt. When he lost that job and fell further into arrears, he says the law firm actually stepped up collection efforts.

Court records show how the law firm repeatedly hauled Davis into court to pore over his finances to look for money. Two of those examinations came only ten days apart.  Eventually, Davis missed a hearing. The judge cited him for contempt of court.

"I got a letter in the mail stating that because I missed a court date, a request for a bench warrant had been submitted for my arrest," Davis said. 

He was not arrested.  Instead, Davis responded to that collections letter and worked with the law firm to set up a new payment plan.

"I thought once I made the arrangements, the bench warrant was moot," he said.

But it wasn't.

Davis says he spent the next three months struggling to keep up with the plan.  He ended up missing one payment and was late making another.

"I was sitting here in my home, watching the State of the Union and two Wyandotte County sheriffs (deputies) knocked on my door," Davis said. "They handcuffed and shackled me."

Davis was taken to jail that night because the collections law firm had the warrant finally processed. Technically, the arrest was for a contempt of court charge. Davis doesn't see it that way.  Neither does his attorney, Blaine Elliott.

"This is a unique case in my experience, and I've been handling debt collection cases for quite some time," said Elliot. "This is the first time that I've encountered a case where someone actually got incarcerated."

That arrest prompted Elliot to file suit in federal court, not only against Nebraska Furniture Mart but its collection firm.  The suit claims abuse of the court system and the harassment of Davis to collect a debt.

"So ultimately it does become a situation where that, but for the fact that I don't have any money, here I landed in jail," said Elliot.

Davis added, "It's my understanding that debtors' prisons were outlawed in the 1800s."

Neither Nebraska Furniture Mart nor Evans & Mullinix has replied to the lawsuit in federal court.  Both declined comment to KCTV5, citing the pending litigation.

Legal experts say Davis' case is unusual.

"Most small debts don't lead to the saga that this case has led to," said University of Kansas law professor Stephen Ware.

Ware does not fault Nebraska Furniture Mart for trying to collect money it is owed.

"Creditors have an incentive to collect and if it's worth the time and effort to take some steps against a debtor, we can expect them to do so," Ware said.

He does question the tactics used in the Davis case. Some states have outlawed such practices.

"If a threat of an arrest is being used as leverage to extract money from a creditor, then I think we have to wonder whether the court wants to be part of that process," said Ware.

That process costs tax dollars such as operating courts, sending out sheriff's deputies to arrest debtors and house debtors in jail at a cost of $40 per day. Elliot says there is a human cost to consider.

"There's very large danger that a person held on a bond like that, if they're not able to get it, could lose a job, lose an apartment, lose you know any of their financial resources that they depend on to survive," he said.

Davis was able to bond out of jail after a few hours.

"We should not go to jail for owing a debt," he said. "And that's what I want everybody at home to know.  I don't want this to happen to anybody else. "

KCTV5 tried to determine if this is happening to anyone else.  Without a defendant's name or case number, you cannot search the Wyandotte County Court computers for these warrants.  If an unpaid debt has led to your arrest, please contact the KCTV5 News Investigates at (816) 576-7555 or (913) 576-7555 or email investigate@kctv5.com.

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