Tuesday , February 23, 2016 - 8:14 AM9 comments
BRIGHAM CITY — The death in jail of a Bear River City man who ignored court orders to pay an ambulance bill is drawing more attention from civil rights groups, which say they see American justice returning to a type of debtors’ prison environment.
A spokesman for one organization close to home, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said Monday, Feb. 22, it could see no wrongdoing in how the bench warrant issuance, arrest and jailing of Rex Iverson, 45, on Jan. 23 was conducted.
“From a procedural point of view, it appears to have been carried out properly in this case,” said John Mejia, ACLU Utah legal director. “But I think we do have concerns there is a larger problem of thousands of these orders issuing from district and justice courts in a process of debt collection in Utah.”
Tremonton City won a $2,377 justice court judgment against Iverson for a 2013 ambulance bill. He ignored repeated orders to appear in court until he was arrested by a Box Elder County sheriff’s deputy. He died in a jail holding cell later that day.
The Northern Utah Critical Incident Investigative Team is looking into the death, although foul play is not suspected.
Dale Ward, the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Department’s chief deputy sheriff, said Monday it may take 60 days before a toxicology report is filed by the state medical examiner’s office.
The Iverson story has picked up traction on news and civil liberties websites, including pieces on TheFreeThoughtProject, where a writer opined that “Utah’s justice court system is a conviction mill.” RawStory and Alternet also shared information about Iverson on their sites, and the Southern Poverty Law Center posted about his case on social media.
National Public Radio found a trend of defendants being charged increasingly high fees and being thrown in jail when they can’t pay the fees. NPR said Utah is among a majority of states that charge offenders for electronic monitoring, probation or supervision, room and board, and increased civil and/or criminal fees.
While Utah does not charge defendants for public defender or legal costs, the state was criticized in a Sixth Amendment Center study for “not uniformly providing counsel at all critical stages of criminal cases as required by the U.S. Supreme Court, with many defendants — particularly those facing misdemeanor charges in justice courts — never speaking to an attorney.”
That absence of legal counsel is a key problem for people hit with civil court bench warrants, Mejia said.
“A lot of times someone facing a debt collection can’t hire an attorney to protect their rights in these proceedings,” Mejia said. “It is mystifying to the person facing those procedures. They may not understand there are protections for debtors, that they may have even bigger fears that stop them from even attending court.”
Mejia suggested policymakers find ways to better educate debtors about the process “so they feel like there are fair procedures so they will be showing up in court and understand what’s going on.”
Statewide in 2015, 3,872 civil bench warrants were issued by Utah district court judges and 1,610 by justice court judges, according to state courts system data.
Each of those warrants could result in a jailing such as that experienced by Iverson, although most civil cases don’t go that far.
“But it is troubling to see there are thousands of these bench warrants issued,” Mejia said. “It could reflect a very troubling issue, proper procedure or not.”
He said “the people responsible for enforcing that need to make sure there is a clear, transparent process.”
The national ACLU, in the meantime, takes a strong stand against what its website calls “the rise of modern debtors’ prisons.”
Ward said the money from the $350 bench warrant against Iverson, had he paid it, would have gone back to the Tremonton justice court. Some of the money would go to the judgment holder, Tremonton City, with the rest to the court. He said the jail makes no money off bail — it’s just the cost of doing business.
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