It appears as if debtor prisons, officially outlawed in America in 1833 have found a way to clandestinely reemerge. It is not uncommon in the parlance of the day to simply have a duck be called a bear to obfuscate the design. We see this all the time in the wording of bills such as the Habeas Corpus Removal Act of 2006 which was actually the Military Commissions Act. Then you have the Anti-American Constitution Nullifying Act of 2001 officially named the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. This one has and even more sensually evocative name, The Patriot Act. Doesn’t that just want to make you run right out and shred the Constitution? It is customary today in the media and political poppycock to hide the true intent or result with semantic misdirection.
Well, debtors prisons 2010 is another prime example of this sort of misdirection. True, technically there are no long term warehouses for people with unpaid debts, but functionally the result is the same. The warehouses are the shattered lives and civil rights of American citizens who are being turned into paupers and criminals by the state and the extortionist they aid and abet. There are however real instances of American citizens being handcuffed, arrested and taken to jail for not paying debts to other private entities or persons. If there are any differences between the following examples and an early 19th century debtor prison system, they are minute and nearly indistinguishable.
Long before he orchestrated a scheme to rig auctions of tax liens in Maryland, attorney and real estate mogul Harvey M. Nusbaum had a long and lucrative career in officially sanctioned crime as an IRS agent.
In 2002, Nusbaum grew weary of robbing people on behalf of the state. Rather than repenting in sackcloth and ashes, as any decent person would, he hired out as a privateer – a freelance buyer and collector of tax debts.
This form of retail fascism – a public-private partnership in plunder – was immensely profitable for Nusbaum. Had he exercised even the slightest restraint on his corrupt appetite, Nusbaum most likely wouldn’t be headed for prison.
Maryland is one of 29 states that permit city governments to raise money by selling tax debts to investors. Each year, Baltimore’s municipal government bundles up tax liens against properties whose owners haven’t paid local taxes or utility bills (such as water and sewage fees) and sells them at auction.
In the most recent auction, Baltimore sold liens on 12,689 properties – ranging from rotting shells of long-abandoned homes to office buildings in the downtown business district. Purchasers assume responsibility for collecting the debts, and the opportunity to foreclose on properties whose owners can’t pay them off.
According to a study conducted by the Baltimore Sun, twenty percent of those liens involved amounts smaller than $1,000. Financial necromancers employed by collection agencies can transmute a trivial amount – a delinquent utility bill or an unpaid and long-forgotten municipal citation – into a budget-crippling debt of several thousand dollars.
“You will pay,” one of Nusbaum’s minions told a victim who called to complain after a tiny unpaid water bill had metastasized into a $4,000 extortion demand. “Everybody does.”
Nusbaum and his cronies filed over 6,000 lawsuits, raking in an estimated $11.5 million in legal fees, title search fees, and interest. This inevitably attracted the attention of the “Justice” Department’s antitrust division, which discovered that Nusbaum, his partner Jack W. Stollof, and other as-yet unnamed investors engaged in collusive bidding in a dozen tax auctions conducted in Baltimore and five other Maryland jurisdictions.
According to federal prosecutors, the actions of Nusbaum and his colleagues were a criminal conspiracy to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. Once in possession of the liens, the conspirators “used the court system to threaten homeowners with seizure of their properties unless they paid legal fees, interest, and other charges … [that] often totaled 10 times the original debt,” observed the Sun.
The real crime here, according to the Feds, was not the use of government-aided extortion to wring hugely inflated sums from struggling, debt-plagued citizens, but rather the use of collusion to enhance the cabal’s profits at the expense of local governments. You see, the entire point of the tax auction racket, in the Sun‘s eminently suitable phrase, is “feeding the public treasury.”
During a rigged auction in 2006, Nusbaum and his comrades bought a bundle of liens containing Vicki Valentine’s unpaid $362 municipal water bill.
Valentine had inherited a home in West Baltimore from her father, who died, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, in 2003. The house was free and clear, but many of the utility bills had been left unpaid.
Struggling with chronic depression after taking care of her dying father, Vicki was soon dealing with unemployment as well. In 2006, Vicki paid $100 on an outstanding water bill of $462.28. That figure shot up to more than $700 after the city added interest, processing charges, and property taxes.
Under severe financial strain, Vicki filed several legal challenges, which delighted the firm that had purchased the lien, since this permitted them to tack on additional legal costs. On September 19, 2008, a judge ordered Vicki to pay $3,603.41, or lose a home that was already bought and paid for. She didn’t have the money. So last February, the local sheriff’s department seized Vicki’s home on behalf of Montego Bay Properties, the entity that held the lien following at least two post-auction transfers of ownership.
In a desperate letter written a year before her house was seized, Vicki pleaded with Baltimore City Circuit Court to extend the payment period.
“For now, this is the roof over my son’s and my head,” she observed, pointing out that she was unemployed and frantically looking for work. “I am trying to get the money together to catch up on my delinquent bills. Please allow more time to pay all bills connected with the foreclosure….”
Vicki didn’t understand that in the corporate socialist system that now exists, mercy is a gift conferred only on the powerful and politically connected. This is illustrated by the fact that the presiding officers of DRT Fund, which was listed as a co-conspirator in Nusbaum’s bid-rigging scheme, were granted amnesty – that is, official forgiveness – in exchange for admitting that they had done wrong and facile promises to pay restitution “to any person or entity injured as a result of the bid-rigging activity … in which [the investment firm] was a participant.”
Here’s the curious thing about that promise of “restitution”: The only party “injured” by the bid-rigging scheme, according to the Feds, was the Municipal Government of Baltimore.
The specific terms of the settlement remained sealed, and DRT Fund’s owners aren’t discussing the particulars in public. However, we can be sure that Vicki Valentine isn’t listed among those “injured” by DRT, whose co-owners, Anthony De Laurentis and John Rieff, are now in possession of her home.
Two years ago, Milwaukee resident Peter Tubic nearly lost his home to foreclosureas a result of an unpaid $50 citation for parking an inoperable van on his own property. A government that arrogates to itself the supposed authority to regulate such matters won’t scruple to add extortionate penalties to the original citation; thus it’s not surprising that the City of Milwaukee eventually demanded $2,645 from Tubic as ransom to prevent the seizure of his home. Eventually a local judge succumbed to an unprofessional fit of common sense and dismissed the citation outright.
Confiscation of a home to collect small debts remains uncommon. However, “people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts,” reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. As is the case in Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, and other states, the Land of 10,000 Lakes is infested with agents 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.”
As a result, it’s increasingly common for people who owe small amounts to find themselves being confronted by police – in the streets, at home or work, while driving, or even while recovering from surgery – and hauled away in handcuffs. Warrants have been issued over outstanding debts as small as $85, which is “less than half the cost of housing an inmate overnight.”
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. In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.
Not every warrant results in an arrest, but in Minnesota 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.