Paul Aker’s Arrest for $1,500 In Student Loan Debt — The Truth Behind The Clickbait
07 Apr , 2016 Leave a comment Blog student loans
When news first hit of a Houston, Texas, man being arrested in connection to his student loan debt from 29 years ago I was stunned… and a little incredulous. Headlines of “Man Arrested for $1,500 in Debt from 29 Years Ago” seemed off for several reasons I’ll get into shortly. Basically, my gut said, “That can’t be the whole story.” Either that’s a click-bait headline or an alarming number of reporters and bloggers failed high school civics very badly.
The truth turned out to be a little of both, I think. So here is some of what set off my BS Alarm:
Being poor is not a crime, and neither is being in debt. This basic fact is what set off alarm bells for me first. Owing money isn’t a crime. It’s necessary to be suspected of a crime in order to be arrested. So, without more information, I could not make a causal connection in my mind between owing $1,500 and being arrested.
There is no such thing as “Debtor’s Prison” in the United States. This has been true for a very long time. How long? The United States used to have a debtors prison system, but after the War of 1812 it came under increasing political pressure due to extremely hard post-war times. The United States eliminated debt imprisonment at a federal level in 1833. (Forgive me, but I can’t find the actual snippet of the United States Code to establish this. Perhaps someone who actually went to law school can clarify in the comments section.) Several states followed suit and a plurality of states had eliminated the practice by the time of the US Civil War. (Finding exact dates on individual state laws proved even harder. Again, perhaps a lawyer or paralegal can pipe up in the comments.)
With respect to student loans, the State has numerous methods for coercing payment. Unlike private consumer debt, the FDCPA doesn’t apply to student loans. The state has a wide range of options from traditional methods like judgments, wage garnishment, bank account levies, and such, but also includes other methods of coercion including seizing of tax returns and — in 20 states, somewhat unbelievably — the revocation of a debtor’s driver’s license. (Note to lawmakers without brains, which means nearly all of you – if a man can’t drive, he can’t earn a living in most parts of the country.) With heavy-handed yet non-violent means such as these, how could the State fail to recover a mere $1,500 without laying a hand on him?
Lets Think This Through, Respectfully…
I’d like dig into the claims made by Paul Aker and the US Marshal service and see how likely they are. Before I proceed, I want to say I’m not “throwing stones” at either party. I’m not questioning anybody’s honor. As the saying goes, “understanding is a three-edged sword.”
What Paul Aker Claimed on National Television
Source: The Huston Factor
In other media outlets, Mr. Aker claimed that he was initially ambushed by two men in utility worker uniforms, which he says caused him to retreat into his home and arm himself. The US Marshal service tells it somewhat differently, indicating that of the two, one was dressed as a US Marshal and one was dressed as a utility worker, as described. It was apparently this incident — his resisting arrest — that resulted such a large force of armed police officers in combat gear showing up at Mr. Aker’s residence.
In the above video, Mr. Aker can clearly be heard claiming that he had not been contacted regarding this debt.
What Court Documents Show
In November 2006, Winford Paul Aker was the subject of a civil suit in United States District Court of Harris County, Texas, for failure to pay his outstanding federally insured student loan debt. I should note that district courts are part of the Federal court system, not the state system. At the time of the suit, the principle was $1,222 with $492 of accrued interest since the debt’s origination in 1987. That’s a total of $1,714, not $1,500 as reported in the media. Apparently the ability to perform 3rd grade arithmetic isn’t required to get a job as a reporter.
Here is the text of the suit asking the court for relief of Mr. Aker’s nonpayment of debt. Remember – merely being in debt is not a crime. At this point, the State is merely asking for its money back plus additional costs as you’ll see below.
WINFORD P. AKER, COMPLAINT
Failure To Appear
At this point, Mr. Aker failed to appear in court. Lots of people fail to appear in court for debt collection cases all the time. Why was he arrested? The judge ordered him to appear and he failed to do so, resulting in a bench warrant for his arrest. (Bench warrants are for civil matters like speeding tickets; arrest warrants are for criminal offenses. Perhaps confusingly, both result in arrest.) At this point, Mr. Aker still had not committed a crime: he’s guilty of disobeying a judge’s order to appear — not violation of a state or federal law. To my shock, even Snopes gets this wrong. ([Snopes indicates incorrectly that Mr. Aker was arrested for criminal contempt of court.)
This news has understandably alarmed many student loan debt holders, many of whom now fear that they too will be hauled in front of a judge for the non-crime being poor. This is not the case.
What Else Could Have Happened?
- The judge could have simply granted a judgment in favor of the State.
- The plaintiff (in this case the United States federal government) could have taken the judgment to a debt collector to have them collect on the debt.
- Or, the State could have taken the judgment and had Mr. Aker’s wages garnished, if he has a regular job.
- Additionally, they could have levied Mr. Aker’s bank account, “helping themselves” to its contents.
Why Did the US Marshals Get Involved?
To understand that, it’s necessary to understand what the US Marshals, the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the country, actually do.
The Marshals Service is responsible for apprehending wanted fugitives, providing protection for the federal judiciary, transporting federal prisoners, protecting endangered federal witnesses, and managing assets seized from criminal enterprises. […] The Marshals Service also executes all lawful writs, processes, and orders issued under the authority of the United States, and shall command all necessary assistance to execute its duties
—United States Marshal Service, Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia (emphasis mine.)