On January 23, 2016, 45-year-old Rex Orval Iverson died in a Box Elder County, Utah jail cell. His only crime was that he had failed to pay a $2,400 ambulance bill.
According to his obituary, Mr. Iverson was not a deadbeat. Instead, he was a hardworking man, who took great pride in his accomplishments. Like most people, he held many different jobs throughout his lifetime, but according to his family,
“No matter what he was doing he always made the best of it. He worked for Peter Kiewit Construction as a heavy equipment operator in Denver, Colorado where he worked on the Trex project. He loved coming home and showing us pictures of what he had done and he took great pride in being able to work on such a big project. His employment with Kiewit Construction allowed him to travel to different states working on the roads.”
According to Chrissy Sabala, who described him as someone who was ‘like a brother,’ Mr. Iverson’s parents were both killed in a car accident.
Sabala told the Standard Examiner “He quit living when his parents died. Life stood still for him.”
Sabala says that Iverson continued to live in his parents’ home, following their deaths.
She described someone who was clearly experiencing PTSD, along with other possible mental health problems, saying “Everything in that house he left exactly like his mother had left it.”
Mr. Iverson was no longer employed, but Sabala says that he did what he could to help everyone, whether tilling a neighbor’s garden or giving of the little he had, in order to help a friend in need.
Sabala said that he gave her his beloved Harley-Davidson when she fell on hard financial times.
She also stressed that “He just didn’t have any money,” adding, “When those people died, his life stopped.”
On Christmas Eve of 2013, because of an undisclosed illness or injury, an ambulance was called to Iverson’s home.
He later received a bill for $2,400.
It was a bill he could not pay.
He was sued by the city of Tremonton, which won a small claims judgement against him, after he failed to show up for court.
Under Utah law, a person can be jailed for failure to pay a debt, including a medical debt.
So if you get sick in Utah and you need medical care, you can be arrested if you can’t pay for it.
That’s what happened to Mr. Iverson.
He was arrested for failure to pay his medical debts on January 23. He died in the Box Elder County Jail later the same day.
The Northern Utah Critical Incident Investigative Team is investigating Mr. Iverson’s death.
According to the Standard Examiner, during the 2014-15 fiscal year, the city of Tremonton alone processed 122 civil cases for unpaid debt in Utah’s ‘justice courts.’
More than half of the judges that hear civil cases regarding unpaid debts in the state do not even have a law degree.
In order to become a judge in a Utah ‘justice court,’ all you need is a high school diploma.
The Standard Examiner reports that these Justice Court judges hear the majority of cases in the state.
Defendants in these courts often have little understanding of the law, and no access to an attorney.
Yet, in these courts, a judge with a high school diploma can sentence a person to jail for failing to pay an ambulance bill.
Debtors prisons have been illegal in United States for more than 200 years. But that has not kept judges from sending people to jail for being poor.
More than 30 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on debtor’s prisons, ruling that judges can’t send a person to jail simply because he or she is unable to pay a debt. But a loophole in the ruling allows people to be jailed if a judge determines they ‘willfully’ refuse to pay.
But as Think Progress reports here, more people are being imprisoned for unpaid debts than ever before in the United States, in part because of the tactics used by dishonest collection agencies, and in part because judges are not informed about debtor’s rights.
It’s one thing to put someone in jail who willfully ran up credit card debt, and later refused to pay for it. But people who engage in this kind of behavior are often protected by bankruptcy laws.
When cities make it a priority to arrest and incarcerate people like Rex Iverson, who simply could not pay an ambulance bill, that’s something else altogether.
At this time, the cause of Mr. Iverson’s death has not been made public. Regardless of what caused his death, this man should not have died alone in a jail cell, where he was imprisoned for the crime of needing an ambulance he could not pay for.
Image credit: rogersandtaylor.com, Rex Orval Iverson obituary photo