About the US Marshals and Paul Aker’s Student Loan Debt

So this happened:

Seven armed U.S. marshals arrived at [Paul Aker’s] door in Houston last Thursday, arrested him on the spot, and took him to jail. He owed all of $1,500, outstanding since 1987. Aker told Fox 26 that without any warning, his 29-year-old debt was forcibly being collected; the marshals took him to federal court and made him sign a payment plan.

Along with many who saw the story, I was convinced there had to be more to it. Well, there sure is.

The US marshals were executing a warrant for Aker’s arrest. The warrant came after a US district court judge repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to get Aker to show up for a hearing on his delinquent student loans. While the NY Post reported that the US marshals showed up “without any warning,” the marshals claim he had plenty because they actually spoke to him on the phone at one point and asked him to show up in court. He didn’t. So the judge issued the warrant for Aker’s arrest (this was back in December 2012, by the way), and two US marshals knocked on the door the other day to arrest Aker.

So far, pretty routine, and definitely not national-news-making. If you disobey enough court orders, you will go to jail. That’s expected.

But according to the Houston Chronicle, Aker resisted, said he had a gun, and apparently made some threatening statements to the US marshals. After that, the marshals went for backup, came back with force, and spent two hours talking Aker into surrendering peacefully.

The lesson here is not that the US marshals are going around collecting student loans at gunpoint. What they are doing is going around executing arrest warrants and serving process. Sometimes it starts to look like the courts are operating a debtors prison, but this is not one of those times. In this case, it looks like Aker was deliberately disobeying a US district court that went out of its way to get him to come in peacefully. Then the judge issued a warrant for his arrest, made sure Aker knew about it, and gave him three years to do something about it. And then, Aker threatened the US marshals when they showed up to execute that warrant three years later. I’m a pretty diehard consumer advocate, and even I can’t find much wrong with what the court and marshals did here.

Caveat. Sometimes, the consumer/defendant (Aker, in this case) never finds out about the court case. And sometimes, that’s because the debt-collector/plaintiff and the court are either sloppy or don’t care. This does not seem to be that sort of case. It has not been my experience that federal judges and magistrates are sloppy or don’t care about personal jurisdiction (which does not exist if the consumer/defendant was not properly served). And there is not much to suggest that Aker was really unaware of the court case and the arrest warrant.

It sounds like Aker knew darn well that he was ducking court orders and an arrest warrant, and he certainly has nobody to blame but himself if he started waving a gun around. But—and this is a big but—if he was truly ignorant of the court case and the warrant for his arrest, it would go a little way towards making his behavior understandable. [h/t Randall Ryder]