One of the many questions I've heard from clients is “could I go to jail if I am unable to pay this debt?” While the answer may be obvious to some, it is a common fear people face when they hear they have been sued over a debt. When you are sued over a debt, whether it's $5,000 or $50,000, you will not be sent to jail because of your inability to pay.
So, where does this common fear come from? It was once true that you could be imprisoned for your inability to pay your debts. Prior to the abolition of debtor's prisons, many found themselves facing serious time when debts came due. As long ago as ancient Rome, people found themselves being imprisoned when they were only 30 days late on their debt. Imprisonment wasn't the worst that someone could expect in ancient Rome either; some were sentenced to death and others were sold into slavery. More recently, In the 19th century more than half of the people incarcerated in Great Britain were there because of unpaid debts. Many colonists in America were brought to America as indentured servants due to their unpaid debts in England. These individuals chose to become indentured servants in a faraway land rather than serve prison time. Debtors in prisons in America were incarcerated until they could obtain funds or work off their debts through penal labor. Being imprisoned for a debt wasn't uncommon, even two signatories of the Declaration of Independence found themselves in debtor's prison. Imprisonment for a debt was often more terrifying than imprisonment for a criminal act. Those sentenced to prison for a criminal offense had a set sentence of imprisonment, whereas debtors did not have a set sentence. Generally, food was provided for those imprisoned for a crime, while those imprisoned for a debt were not always provided with food by the jail. Those imprisoned could quickly see their debts increase, as they were provided with basic necessities on credit from their jailers.
It wasn't until 1833 that congress abolished debtor's prisons federally, and many states followed suit. In 1983 the Supreme Court ruled that incarceration for indigent debtors was unconstitutional, thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment. So why does the fear that you can be incarcerated for an unpaid debt persist? It could be from popular novels and movies that depict the historical practice, or from confusion over modern practices. Today, if someone is arrested on a criminal offense, they may be held prior to posting bail. Generally, the more serious the offense, the higher the amount necessary to post bail. Someone can also be incarcerated if they are found in Contempt of Court. Contempt of Court is often depicted in procedural crime dramas as an outrageous act in a courtroom, but contempt of court can also be failure to pay child support, fines, back taxes, and more. In these cases, it is first determined that an ability to pay exists, prior to incarceration. If you find yourself sued for a debt owed, your freedom is not at risk. While being sued is never a fun experience, you will not be seeing the inside of a jail cell. Still, hiring an experienced attorney can give you even more peace of mind, and help ensure that you receive the best possible outcome for your situation. We help people in your situation each day, across the state of Florida, from Miami to Tampa to Jacksonville and everywhere in between. Let us help you too! Call Holland Law for a free consultation, to see what our experienced attorneys can do for you.