In a horrifying case of injustice and cruel irony, Rex Iverson died in police custody hours after being arrested for not paying his medical bill.
The 45-year-old Bear River City man had incurred an ambulance bill on Christmas Eve in 2013, and roughly a year later was taken to small claims court by Tremonton City. Per the ruling, he was compelled to pay the city $2,379.92.
However, because he was unemployed, he was unable to make any of the payments.
Fast forward to 2016, and Chief Deputy Dale Ward explained in a statement that Iverson “was arrested in Bear River City on an arrest warrant issued through the Tremonton City Justice Court.”
He was then “processed through pre-booking and placed in a holding cell alone.” A few hours later, a Deputy asked him if “he would be able to post bail in the offense. When the Deputy returned about 30 minutes later to begin the booking process, Mr. Iverson was found unresponsive in the cell. Lifesaving efforts were started by Deputies on the scene.”
He was then transported to Brigham City Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
“Because Mr. Iverson was in custody the Critical Incident Protocol was invoked and investigators from the Northern Utah Critical Incident Team were summoned,” Ward continued in his statement. “Detectives from Brigham City Police and Cache County Sheriff’s Office responded to complete a full investigation. There is no indication of foul play of any kind at this time. Investigation is active by both the outside agencies and Box Elder County Sheriff Detectives.”
Later, when speaking to reporters about the incident, Ward said, “The bottom line, he just continued to ignore this thing. 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.’”
While he said that he and his fellow officers “don’t want to run a debtors’ prison” since “[t]here is no reason for someone to be rotting in jail on a bad debt,” he said that his hands were tied.
“We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants,” Ward said.
Sharri Oyler, Tremonton city treasurer, says an average of 7 to 10 bad-debt cases per month are pursued by the city in Tremonton Justice Court, but The American Civil Liberties Union says that these practices are completely unconstitutional:
Debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs. They lead to coercive debt collection, forcing poor people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid arrest and jailing. Debtors’ prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts. This imposes direct costs on the government and further destabilizes the lives of poor people struggling to pay their debts and leave the criminal justice system behind. And, most troubling, debtors’ prisons create a racially skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor.
Ultimately, debtors’ prisons are not only unfair, but they are also illegal. Imprisoning someone because she cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees violates the Fourteenth Amendment promises of due process and equal protection under the law.
Despite The ACLU’s logical points, many counties continue to arrest people for being unable to pay their debts—looks like Bernie Sanders was right, it is expensive to be poor.
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