As a sheriff's deputy dumped the contents of Joy Uhlmeyer's purse into a sealed bag, she begged to know why she had just been arrested while driving home to Richfield, Minn., after an Easter visit with her elderly mother.
No one had an answer. Uhlmeyer spent a sleepless night in a frigid holding cell, her hands tucked under her armpits for warmth. Then, handcuffed in a squad car, she was taken to downtown Minneapolis for booking. Finally, after 16 hours in limbo, jail officials fingerprinted Uhlmeyer and explained her offense -- missing a court hearing over an unpaid debt. "They have no right to do this to me," she said. "Not for a stupid credit card."
It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors' prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts.
Not every warrant results in an arrest, but many debtors spend up to 48 hours in cells with criminals. Consumer attorneys say such arrests are increasing in many states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Washington, driven by a bad economy, high consumer debt and a growing industry that buys bad debts and employs every means available to collect.
Whether a debtor is locked up depends largely on where the person lives, because enforcement is inconsistent from state to state, and even county to county.
"There are no standards here," said Gail Hillebrand, a senior attorney with the Consumers Union in San Francisco. "A borrower who lives on one side of the river can be arrested while another one goes free. It breeds disrespect for the law."
In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man "to indefinite incarceration" until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.
"The law enforcement system has unwittingly become a tool of the debt collectors," said Michael Kinkley, an attorney in Spokane, Wash., who has represented arrested debtors. "The debt collectors are abusing the system and intimidating people, and law enforcement is going along with it."
How often are debtors arrested across the country? No national statistics are kept, and the practice is largely unnoticed outside legal circles. "My suspicion is the debt collection industry does not want the world to know these arrests are happening, because the practice would be widely condemned," said Robert Hobbs, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
Debt collectors defend the practice, saying phone calls, letters and legal actions aren't always enough to get people to pay.
"Admittedly, it's a harsh sanction," said Steven Rosso, a partner in the Como Law Firm of St. Paul, Minn., which does collections work. "But sometimes, it's the only sanction we have."
Those jailed for debts may be the least able to pay.
"It's just one more blow for people who are already struggling," said Beverly Yang, a Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation staff attorney who has represented three Illinois debtors arrested in the past two months. "They don't like being in court. They don't have cars. And if they had money to pay these collectors, they would."
The laws allowing for the arrest of someone for an unpaid debt are not new.
What is new is the rise of well-funded, aggressive and centralized collection firms, in many cases run by attorneys, that buy up unpaid debt and use the courts to collect.
The debts -- often five or six years old -- are purchased from companies like cellphone providers and credit card issuers, and cost a few cents on the dollar. Using automated dialing equipment and teams of lawyers, the debt-buyer firms try to collect the debt, plus interest and fees. A firm aims to collect at least twice what it paid for the debt to cover costs. Anything beyond that is profit.
Portfolio Recovery Associates of Norfolk, Va., a publicly traded debt buyer with the biggest profits and market capitalization, earned $44 million last year on $281 million in revenue -- a 16 percent net margin. Encore Capital Group, another large debt buyer based in San Diego, had a margin last year of 10 percent. By comparison, Wal-Mart's profit margin was 3.5 percent.
Todd Lansky, chief operating officer at Resurgence Financial LLC, a Northbrook, Ill.-based debt buyer, said firms like his operate within the law, which says people who ignore court orders can be arrested for contempt. By the time a warrant is issued, a debtor may have been contacted up to 12 times, he said.
"This is a last-ditch effort to say, 'Look, just show up in court,'" he said.
Few debtors realize they can land in jail simply for ignoring debt-collection legal matters. Debtors also may not recognize the names of companies seeking to collect old debts. Some people are contacted by three or four firms as delinquent debts are bought and sold multiple times after the original creditor writes off the account.
"They may think it's a mistake," said Mary Spector, a Dallas law professor. "They may think it's a scam. They may not realize how important it is to respond."