Illustration: Jim Cooke

Over the past five years, Mondrea Hasty has had officers come to his house multiple times to arrest him, had his mugshot taken, and been handcuffed during a routine traffic stop. His 10-year-old daughter now cries when she sees a person in a police uniform, fearing they could be coming for her father.

The reason for all this? An outstanding vet bill of $89.89.

Thousands of people like Hasty are arrested or jailed for consumer debts each year, from unpaid medical bills to student loans, exhuming the disturbing practice of “debtor’s prison” from the 19th century and bringing it to modern times. Private debt collectors are weaponizing the courts, getting judges to issue arrest warrants for people who don’t appear in court to discuss the unpaid bills.

In a damning new report titled “A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt,” the ACLU documents how tens of thousands of these arrest warrants are issued for debtors annually, sometimes for debt as little as $28. In an analysis of over 1,000 cases in 26 states, the ACLU found over 200 people jailed for medical debt in Idaho over six years at the behest of one collections agency; a Washington attorney specializing in debt collection who has gotten arrest warrants issued for over 200 people since 2010; and horrifying individual cases of arrested debtors. A person lucky enough to live through an illness might go to jail as a result:

One Indiana woman, a mother of three, was jailed for missing hearings over medical bills for her cancer treatment. She was physically unable to climb the stairs to the women’s section of the jail, so she was held in a men’s mental health unit with glass walls that exposed her to the male prisoners, even when she used the toilet. She says she was denied medicine and feminine hygiene products, and “trauma-inducing” behavior, including one man who wiped his feces on the wall of their shared cell.

The ACLU found that debtor’s prisons in some cases are in de facto operation:

“Once arrested, debtors may languish in jail for days until they can arrange to pay the bail. In some cases, people were jailed for as long as two weeks. Judges sometimes set bail at the exact amount of the judgment. And the bail money is often turned over to the debt collector or creditor as payment against the judgment.”

Advertisement

Mondrea Hasty’s case is typical: a small debt that was dragged out over five years and resulted in multiple encounters with law enforcement. Hasty’s nightmare began in December 2012 when his home in Maryland burned down. The single father of three didn’t have renter’s insurance so the family lost everything. They found temporary housing, but their dog, an American bull mix that Hasty had given to his twin daughters on their birthday, couldn’t stay with them, so a friend took him in. Unused to being in a new yard that didn’t have a fence, the dog rushed into the road one day and was hit by a car.

Mondrea Hasty with his daughters in September 2012, before their house burned down. Photo by Mondrea Hasty.

Hasty rushed him to a vet who patched him up for $600, half of which Hasty paid then and half of which he agreed to pay within six months. Despite struggling with the loss of his home and belongings, he managed to pay another $200 in installments but when it came time for his final payment, his father got sick and needed financial assistance.

Advertisement

“My father is going to take priority over a vet bill,” said Hasty by phone.

The vet’s office sent several notices to Hasty about the less than $100 that still needed to be paid, with a last warning sent in June 2013. Hasty talked to the vet’s office and said he would pay, but in July, the vet handed the bill over to a lawyer named Daniel Rosendale to collect. And thus Hasty joined the estimated 77 million Americans whose debts have been turned over to private collection agencies.

(I found that tracking these people down is difficult. I reached out repeatedly to dozens of people in Maryland who had small debts that had led to arrest warrants. Only Hasty responded and was willing to talk. People hounded by debt collectors for years tend to make themselves hard to find.)

Advertisement

Deanna Laguna, the practice manager at Veterinary Medical Center, where Hasty took his dog, wasn’t there at the time this all started, but consulted the clinic’s notes regarding Hasty’s case. She said the clinic doesn’t usually bother with anything less than $100, and noticed something strange in Hasty’s file: “Oddly enough, there was a charge put on his account and backdated,” she said. When the clinic handed the bill over to a lawyer, it was for $104.57, according to the clinic’s records, perhaps due to the addition of interest.

Daniel Rosendale is a general practice lawyer, who handles divorce cases, custody battles, and traffic tickets. Rosendale also handles all of the debt cases for Veterinary Medical Center. He’s handled 19 other cases for them, and has gotten arrest warrants issued for some, but not all, of the other debtors. In September 2013, he filed a lawsuit against Hasty, for $89.89 plus $19.46 in interest, in small claims court. Hasty got a summons to appear in court, but his bad luck continued: He had a stroke and missed the court date.

Hasty, infuriated by the mounting debt notices, told me he gathered $89.89 in coins and single dollar bills and took it to the vet, dropped it on their front desk, and told the receptionist that he wanted to be left alone.

Advertisement

“I know. I’m an asshole. But I was annoyed,” Hasty said. “The old lady there was giving me an attitude and saying basically, ‘This is what I expect from black people.’”

Laguna says the Veterinary Medical Center has no record of that payment. Though the case continues for Hasty, it was marked as “deactivated” in the clinic’s system years ago.

“I don’t know what his particular situation was,” said Laguna. “But generally, if the client attempts to settle with us, that’s financially disadvantageous for us because we’d owe the collections agency for their time.”

Advertisement

That’s one of the big problems once debt is turned over to a lawyer or private company. They can buy the debt for pennies on the dollar and then tack on their own fees on top of the original debt, so the debtor’s bills quickly escalate.

After Hasty missed his first court hearing, another court summons was sent, but it went to his old address, where the fire had happened. When Hasty didn’t attend the hearing, the judge cited him for “failure to appear” and issued a body attachment, which meant that officers should arrest him and bring him in.

Two sheriff’s officers came to his house and served him with papers, but told him he could go to court himself the next day. He went to court and explained they had the wrong address for him.

Advertisement

Then he got another court summons, but couldn’t attend that day. And he was informed that the bill was now over $500, primarily as a result of attorney fees.

On a Saturday morning in 2014, 10 minutes after he’d gotten home from working a night shift at his job managing a homeless shelter, two officers came to the door and said they were there to arrest him. They handcuffed him in front of his children, took him to the sheriff’s department where they handcuffed him to a rail and left him for an hour. Then they took his mugshot and brought him before a magistrate and they agreed to a court date.

Hasty appeared in court that time, and the lawyer informed him that he planned to garnish his wages. Hasty said he was living check-to-check and needed the money to feed his kids, but he says the lawyer said that didn’t matter.

Advertisement

“The money was paid, they just didn’t want to accept it in the form it was given,” Hasty told me, exasperated. (Because Hasty manages the homeless shelter he works at, he says he was able to simply refuse to garnish his own wages.)

Debt affects many Americans—one in three Americans have a debt that’s been turned over to a private collection agency, according to the Urban Institute, making the debt collection business an $11 billion annual industry. But it disproportionately affects communities of color, residents of which are more likely to have court judgments against them and, once targeted with a body attachment, more likely to have an encounter with the police leading to their arrest.

Having a body attachment in your file means that any encounter with law enforcement is complicated and can escalate quickly. The ACLU found one case where a debtor “was Tasered and bitten by a police dog in the course of his arrest.” At one point, while Hasty was driving his kids home, a police officer pulled him over, saying his taillight was broken. When the officer pulled up his file, the arrest warrant came up, meaning Hasty was handcuffed in front of his kids once again. The kids got upset and the officer let Hasty go, telling him he needed to go to the station first thing in the morning.

Advertisement

Daniel Rosendale, the lawyer pursuing Hasty’s debt, told me by email that he couldn’t discuss the case, but disputed the premise that people are being incarcerated over debts.

“If a particular Defendant does not cooperate, the Plaintiff can ask for the court’s assistance via a court order to encourage the Defendant to comply with lawful requests for information,” Rosendale wrote by email, emphasizing that warrants are issued because a defendant hasn’t shown up for a court date. “The arrest is not for the debt, but for the Defendant’s defiance of the court’s order(s).”

But as the ACLU notes, “for debtors, this technical distinction matters little.” The ACLU’s major recommendation in its report is that states pass legislation prohibiting courts from issuing body attachments or arrest warrants in debt collection cases.

Advertisement

Hasty’s most recent court date came in December, five years after he first took his dog to the vet. The judge set the total judgment against Hasty at $213.80, and Hasty agreed to have his wages at the homeless center garnished so this nightmare could end. Hasty, though, says that over $700 has been garnished from his wages, augmented with additional fees from Rosendale.

Jennifer Turner, the author of the ACLU report, said she encountered a number of cases where the final amount a debtor pays is much higher than the judgment.

“What started as a $200 bill can mushroom into much more, with the addition of post-judgment interest and attorney fees,” she said by phone. “The court is just rubber-stamping whatever the debt collector asks for. It’s like the wild west in these lower courts. Judges aren’t doing their due diligence to make sure people’s rights are protected.”

Advertisement

Meanwhile, the dog whose vet bill started all this for Mondrea Hasty has since died.

“My kids want to get another pet but I’ve refused,” said Hasty. “I never want to take an animal to the vet again.”


Contact the Special Projects Desk

This post was produced by the Special Projects Desk of Gizmodo Media. Reach our team by phone, text, Signal, or WhatsApp at (917) 999-6143, email us at tips@gizmodomedia.com, or contact us securely using SecureDrop.

Advertisement