Houston Man Arrested for Ignoring Lawsuit, Not for Failing to Pay His Student Loans

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on February 25, 2016 at 9:15 am
Houston Man Arrested for Ignoring Lawsuit, Not for Failing to Pay His Student Loans

Student loan debt is impacting a lot of things in our society, but is it also resulting in people getting thrown behind bars? Judging from the media reaction to a recent move by law enforcement to use U.S. Marshals to arrest a person who blew off court orders stemming from student loan debt, it is.

But while it may seem outrageous for several marshals to arrest someone over a $1,500 student loan taken out in 1987, it wasn’t the debt but his inability to answer repeated orders from the court that did him in.

“He wasn’t arrested for student loans, he was sued because he didn’t pay a student loan,” says Joshua Cohen, an attorney for student loan borrowers. “Any lawsuit that you don’t show up for the judge is going to have you arrested.”

Arrest of Aker hits nerve with student loan borrowers

The story of Paul Aker’s arrest went viral last week as countless people reacted in dismay and worried that they could be next if they don’t pay their student loan debt. After all, 40 million people have a least one student loan bill and more than seven million are in default. The average student loan bill per person currently stands at $31,000. But according to legal experts, the government isn’t going to arrest you because you blow off your student loans, but they will sue, which is what happened with Aker.

He was reportedly issued a bench warrant arrest in 2012 and ignored it. He had also reportedly made statements about violence, which is why so many marshals were used to arrest him. “What happens if you get a bench summons for your arrest is they try to give you a chance to avoid being arrested,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex.com. “That’s why people who just ignore everything get the U.S. marshals.”

The $1.4 trillion dollars in student loan debt is a huge problem for this country but that doesn’t mean the government doesn’t try to collect the money that is owed them.  In fact, this isn’t the first time law enforcement used marshals in Houston, and it probably isn’t going to be the last time. According to Kantrowitz, there have been 1,500 cases where U.S. marshals served warrants, but that’s not to people who haven’t paid their loans, it’s to people who were sued because they failed to show up to address their student loan debt.

According to Kantrowitz, the number of bench warrant arrests in the country are minuscule and account for less than 100 out of the total 7.6 million defaulted borrowers. After being hauled in front of a judge, Aker agreed to sign a repayment plan with a debt collector.

“It’s a non-story that people are running away with,” says Natalia Abrams, founder of Student Debt Crisis. “Because student debt is a very complicated, multifaceted issue, people don’t necessarily know what happens in a default. Borrowers are getting scared and confused about whether or not they can be arrested.”

While Texas is relying on marshals to help collect debts from repeat offenders, other states are turning to private industry for help. Michigan is an example of one state that hires private attorneys to go after people with student loan debt of less than $40,000. That’s because it isn’t worthwhile for the government to try to collect anything less than $40,000. According to Kantrowitz, these government-vetted attorneys are having a good success rate in collecting the money, often by threatening lawsuits.  Nationwide, 19 U.S. district courts contract with private attorneys for debt collection. Meanwhile, Cohen points out that the Department of Education has around twenty debt collectors working for them who will not throw a borrower in jail.

There are recourses other than jail

For people concerned about what will happen if they don’t pay their student loan, they can breathe easy because marshals won’t be banging down their doors unless they ignore summonses by the court. But, they can see their wages garnished, up to 15% of Social Security or Disability benefits taken away or see state or federal tax refunds intercepted until the bill is paid in full.

And even if you have been ignoring the bill for months, Cohen says it’s never too late to get back on the good side of the government. He says borrowers can try to consolidate the debt into a lower payment, similar to how you would refinance a mortgage, or can make nine payments over ten months to be back in good standing.  Unlike with mortgages, student loan borrowers won’t see the interest mount if they skip making payments.  “The bottom line is don’t ignore it,” says Cohen. “You also don’t have to stand for harassment. If you think something is wrong call an attorney.”

Feature Image//Flickr Creative Commons by my_southborough

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for Bankrate.com, Glassdoor.com, SigFig.com, FoxBusiness.com, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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