Sunday, September 27, 2009

Small Claims Court Ignores Constitution, News at 11

As if we all didn't know that the state constitution is routinely ignored by politicians all across the state, apparently now the courts are doing the same. The Indiana Law Blog reported on an interesting story published by the Evansville Courier & Press on what's going on down in Vanderburgh County's Small Claims Court:

Valisha Fleming couldn't believe what she saw happening recently in Vanderburgh County's Small Claims Court: A disabled woman with three children at home was sentenced to 30 days in jail for falling $110 behind in court-ordered payments on a debt.

Deputies were called into the courtroom, handcuffed the crying woman, patted her down in the hallway and were going to take her away. She did not have an attorney.


The judge in the case, Superior Court Magistrate Richard D'Amour, said Carter was not sentenced for failing to pay a debt, but for failing to obey an earlier court order to pay it. "It may appear to you to be a fine line," D'Amour said, "but it makes a difference."

Other Vanderburgh Superior Court judges said they agree. They contend the court is allowed to sentence and threaten to sentence people to jail if they fail to comply with court orders to pay their debts.

Katherine Rybak, attorney with Indiana Legal Services in Evansville, has long argued that the court's practice is unconstitutional. "No imprisonment for debt means no imprisonment for debt even when the debtor has the ability to pay," she said.


In the Perry County case, Circuit Judge M. Lucy Goffinet ordered a man to pay $25 a month on a debt or go to jail. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed her ruling, saying that in such cases, "Even the threat of imprisonment is erroneous."
Just in case anyone needs a reminder, Article 1, Section 22 of the state constitution is fairly clear about all this:

The privilege of the debtor to enjoy the necessary comforts of life, shall be recognized by wholesome laws, exempting a reasonable amount of property from seizure or sale, for the payment of any debt or liability hereafter contracted: and there shall be no imprisonment for debt, except in case of fraud.

I would highly encourage you all to read the Indiana Law Blog. It is a great resource to keep up on what's going on across the state.

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