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Can I Be Arrested for Failing to Pay a Debt?

Hands in handcuffs

While there may no longer be debtors’ prisons, people can—and do—go to jail for unpaid debt all the time. In general, people can be jailed for several reasons:

Unpaid Taxes

People who owe money to the IRS can’t be jailed simply for having back taxes. But, people who intentionally cheat on their taxes or attempt to defraud the government can be jailed for tax evasion or fraud. State and federal governments have more options to collect the collection of the debts owed to them, including the possibility of jail time, than do most other types of debt collectors.

Child Support Arrearages

As a whole, society has decided that a parent’s most important financial obligation is to his or her children. Accordingly, family court judges have a large amount of power to enforce the payment of back child support debt. When a person owes child support, the court has the power to revoke his or her driver’s license, ask for the suspension of a professional license, create a wage deduction order, place a lien on personal property, or order jail time.

Sending a person to jail for failing to pay child support sends a powerful message. However, people do not earn much money while in jail, and it may be counterproductive to hold a parent in jail until his or her arrearages are paid. As a result, a parent may be ordered to go to work from Monday through Friday, but spend his or her weekend in jail until the debt is cleared. As you can imagine, many parents work very hard to clear out this debt and regain their free time.

Criminal Fines

Technically, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants cannot be jailed for failing to pay criminal fines. However, states and counties often get around this rule by assessing civil fines or penalties that must be paid as part of a person’s sentence. Failing to pay fines, fees, or costs associated with probation or parole programs, drug testing charges, or other programs or penalties that the state or county requires can lead to jail time. Often, failing to pay all of the fees associated with a criminal charge will result in the revocation of a person’s status on probation or parole, resulting in a warrant for arrest.

Help For Consumers

Most people will never be faced with the possibility of jail time over an unpaid debt. The best way to be sure that this never happens to you is to always take action when you are contacted by a debt collector. Even if you cannot pay right now, you may be able to defer the debt or stop debt collector harassment while you figure out a plan. Never ignore notices from debt collectors, especially if they come from a court or contain information about pending litigation.

Hands in handcuffs

If you are unsure about what to do with a debt that you owe, you should contact one of the attorneys at Fitzgerald & Campbell, APLC. Our attorneys have decades of experience successfully representing clients against collection claims and all other types of debtor defense cases, and we are here to help you!

Call us today for a free consultation at (844) 431-3851, or email us at

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