In February, a guy in Houston was arrested by U.S. Marshals for failing to show up to court to pay off student debt he owed from the ‘80s.
I wrote a followup story suggesting that if this was one district, it was possible there were hundreds of such arrests occurring across the country.
I was wrong.
Fusion launched an investigation into just how widespread these arrests were across the country. We counted up all the student debt-related arrest warrants served by U.S. Marshals in other major cities for 2015. Here’s what we found:
- New York-Southern (Manhattan): 0
- New York-Eastern (Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island): 0
- Illinois-Northern (Chicago): 0
- California-Central (Los Angeles): 0
- Texas-Northern, Western, and Eastern : 0
- Florida-Southern: (Miami) 0
- Massachusetts (Boston: 0
Instead, all the arrests are coming out of Paul Aker’s hometown, Houston, home of Texas’ Southern District. And they are being almost exclusively issued by a single judge: Lynn Hughes.
Hughes, 74, was appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan in 1985. He has earned a reputation for racial insensitivity, mocking diversity directors who wouldn’t recognize that, in Hughes’ view, Indians are technically Caucasians; and not understanding why a remark about fried chicken and blacks might be offensive. He has actually been admonished by his own circuit for his behavior.
In 2015, the Houston office had approximately 25 arrest warrants for persons with outstanding debt. Seven of those warrants ended in actual arrest because the individuals failed to show up in court. In the last ten years, there have been an estimated 225 arrests in student loan cases in the southern district of Texas alone.
Many of the victims I and my colleague Dan Lieberman found in the student debt cases were poor and African-American with no apparent ability to repay the thousands of dollars they were told they now owed. One is Tracie Mozie, 51. Mozie survives on government disability checks: She has a prosthetic leg from a congenital birth defect, and says she’s been diagnosed bipolar schizophrenic. In 2014, she was arrested for having failed to show up to court to pay down a student loan she took out in 1986 to attend truck driving school. The government told Mozie she owes more than $13,000.
She told me that she believed the debt to have been a grant that didn’t need to be paid off. Records show she was served at an incorrect address, and when they finally did, she did not understand why she had to go to court
“They should’ve told me what it was for,” she said. “If they’d have told me what it was for, I could’ve called somebody. But they didn’t tell me what it was for until they arrested me,” she said
Gordon Wheeler, 56, found himself in a similar situation. Around 2015, he began receiving notices that he owed money for a debt he took out, also for trucking school in mid-80s.
“They kept sending me stuff in the mail talking about I got to go to court, but I didn’t know what I had to go to court for, so I just threw it … with the rest of the junk mail on the side,” Wheeler said.
How do debts taken out in the ‘80s pop up 30 years later? The U.S. Department of Education refused to get into the specific mechanics of how loans in default get rotated through their system. But they are required by law to collect them no matter how old they are. If a borrower moves addresses, and fails to notify their loan servicer, they may go years without receiving a notice that they still owe money until the Department realizes that the notices aren’t going through.
At this point, the Department refers the collection case gets moved to the Justice Department, which has a roster of private collection agencies across the country to file suits in federal court to collect the debt on the government’s behalf.
But whereas in every other court district we looked, a non-payer receives an absentee default judgment, which allows a debt servicer to begin doing things like garnishing wages, Judge Hughes believes in hauling offenders directly before him into court.
Hughes refused to go on the record with us. But we can get a sense of how he thinks about these cases from transcripts from the debt collection court hearings. Here’s the one from Mozie’s case. As she enters the court, her debt servicer explains to Hughes that she has already agreed to set up a payment plan, and that she just needs to fax them her details. Of note: When we visited, she did not have a fax machine.
HUGHES: She can just fax them to you.
CERSONSKY: Yes, sir. We have written the fax number down for her.
HUGHES: And he doesn’t need a lot of papers, ma’am. He just needs some check stubs or statements.
MOZIE: I have the statement along the side of my bed. I just got through looking at it. I just got through looking at it. I am so sorry.
HUGHES: Ma’am, that’s okay. When somebody tells you to come down for the second or third time, you probably ought to do it, even if you think it’s your son.
Mozie emphasized to us that she never fully understood why the government was trying to contact her.
“They had a warrant for my arrest and I asked them for what, he didn’t say what it was for,” she said. “He said, he’ll tell you later. So I just got my clothes on, went in the closet got my clothes on and walked out the door. And by the time I got out the door, they handcuffed my legs, my ankles.”
Wheeler said the same thing, and added he couldn’t make his court dates because he’d just had open-heart surgery.
“You just coming over here serving me papers saying I got to show up and I just told you I had open heart surgery two or three weeks ago… so I’m not a well man,” he said.
Richard Hunter, the director of Houston’s U.S. Marshals office, said that enforcing student loan defaults puts a strain on their resources, and were candid that Hughes seemed to stand out among judges in his handling of these cases.
“It all comes down to the interest level of the judiciary and the Marshall’s district,” he said.
In some districts, federal judges “won’t even entertain these things.”
“Here in Houston it seems that the Federal Judiciary has a particular interest in these types of matters,” Hunter said.
“I won’t say it’s unfortunate but, you know, it is tasking on our resources and we would rather be doing other things.”
Wheeler is retired, and gets by on social security and disability. He too questioned the entire process.
“Can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” he said.