Imagine finding yourself behind bars and not knowing why. That’s what happened to Janelle Leslie. She essentially ended up in jail for a debt she did not even know she had. A state legislator from the 1st District, which includes part of Mountlake Terrace, has written a bill that would make it far less likely for an injustice like this to happen.
“When I read Janelle’s story in the papers I decided to look into the issue and learned that the way collection agencies go about their business needs some changes,” said Rep. Derek Stanford, a Democrat from Bothell. “Debtors deserve more information about their debts as well as their rights and responsibilities so they can make good decisions and stay out of trouble.”
In 1833 the United States outlawed sending debtors to prison and the Washington state constitution prohibits putting people behind bars for having outstanding debts. But people who miss court appearances can get arrested and jailed.
Leslie spent one night in a cell because she didn’t show up in court to deal with an unpaid hospital bill that she didn’t know she owed to begin with.
“Going to jail for this made me feel completely helpless because I didn’t know what I was going to jail for,” said Leslie about her experience. “It was so demeaning and sad because I felt so clueless, but more so because I was arrested in front of my daughter. I saw the fear and hurt in my daughter’s eyes.”
Leslie ended up behind bars due to a series of unfortunate events. Five years ago her son had an MRI that she thought had been covered by her insurance but it had not, and the case went to a collection agency. She didn’t receive sufficient notification about the debt and had no idea that the company had taken her to court or that there was a warrant for her arrest. It wasn’t until a few weeks after her ordeal in jail that she finally found out, in a court hearing, the nature of her situation.
“You might not even know about a debt, and suddenly you can end up in jail because of a legal loophole which is being abused by some debt collectors,” said Stanford. “And sometimes collectors can hijack court powers to go after protected assets by having bail money forfeited directly to the collector. This is an abuse of our already overburdened court system, and it needs to stop.”
Stanford explained that one of the main issues is that debtors often don’t know about the debt because collectors are not required to inform them who the original creditor was or how the debt was acquired.
His bill would:
- Require that more information be supplied to the debtor, including the name of the original creditor and information about the rights and responsibilities of debtors.
- Prevent debt collectors from requesting direct forfeiture of bail money to satisfy a debt.
Stanford’s HB 1864 had a public hearing in the House Committee on Business & Financial Services on February 17. Stanford’s bill passed out of committee on a unanimous, bipartisan vote.
I was so happy to see HB 1864, my debt collection legislation, pass out of committee on a bipartisan, unanimous vote this morning. This legislation is an important step forward for consumers who are struggling during this recession.