BRIGHAM CITY — Rex Iverson died in a jail cell shortly after he was taken into custody, but he wasn’t there for a criminal act.
He was there on a civil judgment, for not paying a bill.
Jail and state court statistics and interviews with various officials in the justice system show that a debtor ending up behind bars is relatively rare, but Iverson’s case was instructive: Any Utahn who ignores a civil court judgment and subsequent court orders may end up incarcerated.
On Christmas Eve 2013, the Bear River City man incurred an ambulance bill. Tremonton City won a justice court small claims judgment against Iverson in September 2014 that compelled him to pay the city $2,376.92.
He never paid the bill and ignored repeated court orders to appear, court records show. That led to a county sheriff’s deputy, serving a $350 bench warrant issued by the justice court on Dec. 29, 2015, arresting him on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 23.
Iverson, 45, died in a Box Elder County Jail holding cell early that afternoon while jailers were elsewhere in the jail preparing for the booking process, the sheriff’s office said in a press release reporting the in-custody death. The death is under investigation by the Northern Utah Critical Incident Investigative Team, but foul play is not suspected.
“We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants,” Box Elder County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dale Ward said. “But we make every effort to resolve the issues without making an arrest on a civil bench warrant. The reason we do that is we don’t want to run a debtors’ prison. There is no reason for someone to be rotting in jail on a bad debt.”
But the law mandates sheriff’s offices must serve bench warrants issued by the courts, Ward said. Civil warrants are lumped in with all other warrants, including those from criminal cases, as deputies work through to serve them.
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Serving a warrant means the defendant must be found. In this case, a deputy went to Iverson’s house that Saturday morning “and he answered the door.” Ward said.
Since Jan. 1, 2013, Box Elder County has booked 13 people into jail on civil bench warrants, Ward said. Before he was chief deputy, Ward ran the sheriff’s office’s civil division for two of those three years.
“I can almost guarantee you that all of them either posted bail or were released in a short time on a promise to appear,” he said. “I doubt very strongly that anyone stayed longer than 12 hours.”
About half of civil bench warrants stem from judgments obtained by government entities, the other half from private debts, he said.
Sharri Oyler, Tremonton city treasurer, said an average of 7 to 10 bad-debt cases per month are pursued by the city in Tremonton Justice Court. After the city obtained a default judgment against Iverson and he still failed to pay, it secured a supplemental court order mandating again that Iverson appear in court to face the matter.
Oyler said that by 2015, the city had exhausted all other avenues, including an attempt to garnish Iverson’s wages through his employer.
“But he didn’t have a job, that we knew of,” she said.
Shawn Warnke, Tremonton city manager, said going to court to collect a debt is the last resort for the city.
CIVIL WARRANTS DO HAVE TEETH
In 2014, Ward handled Iverson’s first arrest on the ambulance bill. He was booked into jail and released with a promise to appear in court.
“The bottom line, he just continued to ignore this thing,” Ward said. “What made this one worse is the fact that he was thumbing his nose at a public entity, Tremonton Ambulance.”
Ward added, “Everybody has worked really hard to get him a break. But ultimately it comes down to the point of the judge saying, ‘You are going to get arrested and stay in jail until you see the judge.’”
The sheriff’s office also sends letters to the subjects of bench warrants, explaining the amount of the bond to be paid in lieu of deputies serving the warrant, and offering the person a chance to set a court date.
“We even offer to take payments,” he said.
Most civil defendants quickly grasp the consequences of not complying with court orders, he said.
“What I’ve been finding is that the person on the other end of that warrant doesn’t understand the system at all. They just assume that if they just don’t show up” there are no serious consequences, he said.
But once informed they could end up in jail, he said, most defendants will appear in court and agree to payment plans to resolve the debts.
“Our judges are very good with us,” Ward said. “We try to work with people and educate them. I’m very proud of the fact we didn’t have many repeat customers on civil bench warrants. But you always have a percentage of the population who say, ‘Well, I ain’t going to do it.’”
Richard Schwermer, assistant state courts administrator, said the system provides tools for the winner of a judgment to collect a debt, as well as repeated chances for a defaulter to avoid jail.
“When a person defaults, in order to find out what assets they have, the plaintiff is entitled to compel the defendant to show up and answer questions, about cars, house, mortgages,” he said. “The warrant is only issued after two demands for appearance or services have been ignored and the person has intentionally failed to appear. In the vast majority, nobody is booked.”
Statewide in 2015, 3,872 civil bench warrants were issued by Utah district court judges and 1,610 by justice court judges, Schwermer said.
State records show 122 civil cases were filed in Tremonton Justice Court in fiscal year 2014-15, those among the 410 filed in all justice courts in Box Elder County. Davis County had 2,192, Morgan 12 and Weber 3,337.
The Tremonton Justice Court said in response to a public records request that it issued four civil warrants in 2015, none in 2014 and seven in 2013.
Iverson was no stranger to justice courts. Court records indicate he was the subject of 11 Northern Utah justice court cases from 1996 through 2015.
FRIENDS REMEMBER ’VERY GIVING’ MAN
Chrissy Sabala of Ogden remembers Iverson warmly as “a wonderful guy.”
“He was very giving, very loving,” she said.
Sabala said Iverson was like a brother to her and her three sisters. She said Iverson had stayed with her family occasionally in their younger years.
But she said Iverson was changed when his adopted parents were killed in an Interstate 15 crash in the Willard area years ago.
“He quit living when his parents died,” Sabala said.
Iverson lived in his parents’ home after their death. Sabala said
“Life stood still for him,” she said. “Everything in that house he left exactly like his mother had left it.”
Sabala said she was not surprised to hear about Iverson’s court troubles.
“He just didn’t have any money,” she said. “When those people died, his life stopped.”
Iverson often came to Ogden to share Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with the Sabalas. “But he didn’t show up this year and we kind of wondered about him.”
Sabala said as far as she knew, Iverson had been in good health. She said she wondered how long Iverson was left alone in the holding cell where he died.
“If he had a heart attack or whatever,” she said, it was unfortunate no one was on the spot to help him.
His debt troubles notwithstanding, Iverson was willing to assist people when he could, Sabala said.
“He could fix anything,” she said, recalling he repaired a garden tiller and then went around tilling friends’ gardens, including hers in Ogden.
A few years ago, Sabala was visiting Iverson and she told him she was experiencing some financial trouble.
“Rex would give from his heart,” she said. “He gave me his Harley-Davidson. He loved that bike.” She said he was a huge NASCAR fan too.
She said she eventually repaid Iverson. “But he never expected a thing.”
Attempts to reach Joni Iverson, his sister and closest surviving family member, were unsuccessful.
You can reach Mark Shenefelt at 801 625-4224 or firstname.lastname@example.org