Opinion: An Historic Relic and Modern-Day Injustice

Debt Collection
Tima Miroshnichenko/pexels.com.

Most people are shocked to learn that in Maryland a “body attachment,” that is, an arrest by a police officer, may be used by creditors to enforce civil judgments in debt collection cases.

Maryland Law School’s Consumer Protection Clinic conducted a two-year, comprehensive study of this archaic practice.

Our findings are best summarized by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s testimony in support of two bills that would abolish the practice in small claims: “The use of body attachments to collect civil debt is not only of questionable constitutionality, but it is also an outdated, unfair and draconian process that hurts people of limited means and has a significant disparate impact upon people of color.”

Our study confirmed all of these assertions. We found that from January 2015 until December 2020, at the request of judgment creditors, Maryland judges issued at least 765 body attachments to enforce civil judgments against debtors.

Many of the debtors in these cases were arrested and jailed. Many had not received notice that they were subject to arrest, and the arrests devastated them, upending their lives. The average judgment in these cases was for a little over $5,000.

Based on an analysis of ZIP codes, creditors disproportionately used body attachments against low-income people of color. The 20 ZIP codes that had the highest numbers of body attachments contained over 81% people of color.

These same ZIP codes also have a median income of $49,000, well below the state median income level of $83,000.

There are many other ways to collect judgments, and the Maryland and D.C. Debt Collectors Bar Association testified that their members do not seek body attachments. For example, most creditors in the state use wage garnishments or property liens as the debt collection methods of choice.

Some assets of debtors are exempt from execution — that is, legally, they may not be seized by creditors. These include up to $6,000 in cash or property of any kind, and workers compensation, Supplemental Security Income and Social Security benefits. Debtors must affirmatively assert this exemption in court, however, which many do not have the ability to do by themselves. Instead, many debtors jailed by body attachments use these exempt assets to get out of jail or to pay creditors.

When, as is often the case, a debtor has no non-exempt assets, a body attachment serves no purpose other than to punish the debtor.

In sum, our study shows that creditors are using body attachments against a significant number of debtors, most of whom are disproportionately lower-income people of color. Many of these judgment debtors either have no assets or have statutorily protected assets, and are still arrested and jailed or made subject to arrests for indefinite periods of time.

The House of Delegates has passed HB 848, which would abolish this practice, but that bill and its companion bill, SB 657, have not yet been voted on in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

We strongly urge the committee to hold an immediate vote.

In 2015, the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition issued a report criticizing the use of body attachments to enforce judgments for debts. The report, called Arrests for Small Debts: Case Studies from Baltimore City and County, asked “How could this happen in the 21st Century?” We ask the same question.

The answer must be this practice cannot continue.

It would be a tragedy if these bills died in committee and this abusive, unjust and racially discriminatory relic of the past lived on.

–JEFFREY ABNEY

The writer is a third-year student at the University of Maryland-Carey School of Law, who was the student leader in the Consumer Protection Clinic’s body attachment study. He writes on behalf of all of the students in the 2020 and 2021 Consumer Protection Clinics.