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Paying with freedom

The ultimate threat in debt cases is jail time for failure to pay. It is a threat routinely used by court officials, lawyers, and constables to force compliance by defendants.

At New Bedford District court last November, a constable who had brought debtors in under threat of arrest was haranguing several of them in the hallway. One woman, Deborah Medeiros, owed $700 to an auto salvage company. The constable, Trent Roderick, told her to come up with the money, or he'd send her before a judge who might lock her up.

''I'm going to jail,'' Medeiros sobbed, tears flowing down her face. In a panic, she called her father, who came to court with the cash.

Paul A. Fournier, a covering lawyer in several western Massachusetts courts, warns debtors in the hallway in Springfield District Court that they'll be incarcerated if they lie on court forms. And, he said, jail threats can be effective. Some judges, if they have trouble with debtors, he said, ''will put the cuffs on them and make a big show of it, and the money comes out from everywhere. The relatives come out and everything.''

Marc Marcelin, a 53-year-old Haitian immigrant, didn't get to his relatives in time.

On the morning of Dec. 13, two constables arrived at Marcelin's home in Brockton. They handcuffed him and drove him to Quincy District Court, where he sat in the lock-up of one of the state's dingiest courthouses for nearly six hours. About 3 p.m., he was called before Judge Mark S. Coven.

''So, you haven't come up with the money?'' Coven asked.

Marcelin was being sued by Madeline Cordon of Randolph, for failing to do a contracting job. She had paid him $2,000 to put vinyl siding on her house. He did two days' work but then didn't return her calls for six days - facts that Marcelin, in an interview, did not dispute. Cordon sued him, and Marcelin twice failed to show up for court.

Marcelin was no stranger to the court system, having faced charges years earlier for using drugs. But that was not the matter before the court on this day. Indeed, he had no idea how high the stakes were when he left home that morning. Standing before Coven, Marcelin told the judge his sister was supposed to be coming to court with money.

''Is she coming today?'' Coven asked twice, according to an audiotape of the session. Marcelin was not sure.

Marc Marcelin wore shackles and handcuffs as he was escorted into a courtroom in Quincy District Court, having been jailed for four weeks over a $2,300 debt. (Read court documents related to this case here.) (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

Coven told him he was being found in contempt of court and ordered, ''that you be held at the Dedham House of Correction to be released upon payment of $2,300,'' including fees and interest.

After a long silence, Coven asked, ''Do you understand that?''

Under the law, a judge can fine a debtor $200 for contempt, or put him in jail for up to 30 days. Coven did not give Marcelin a chance to contact a lawyer, as the Massachusetts court standards recommend. There is no constitutional right to a lawyer in civil cases.

When Marcelin's sister called the court that day to arrange payment to free him, she said, a clerk told her ''not to bother,'' because he also owed money in Brockton District Court. The clerk made the same comment about Marcelin's situation to a Globe reporter that day.

Marcelin was locked up for 28 days.

(Read court documents related to this case here.)

Coven defended his ruling. ''He had the keys to the jail cell,'' Coven said. ''All I was trying to do was get a court order satisfied.''

Part 3: Behind the badge

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The Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers who have first-hand information about debt collection abuses.
The telephone number is (617) 929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at (617) 929-7483.
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