HOUSTON, TX (AP) – Failing to pay up on a federal student loan could result in all sorts of awful consequences, including ruined credit and loss of wages. But arrest?
A Houston man claims U.S. Marshals arrested him for not paying a nearly 30-year-old federal student loan. Paul Aker told a Fox affiliate in Houston that deputy U.S. Marshals armed with automatic weapons showed up at his house Thursday over a $1,500 student loan he took out in 1987. Akers said he never received any notice about the loan and was caught unaware when federal agents arrived at his house.
“I’m home. I haven’t done anything,” Aker told Fox, wondering why U.S. Marshals were knocking on his door. “It’s amazing.”
Akers said he was hauled into court without having his rights read to him, held for an hour and eventually forced to sign a payment plan with a debt collection company. His story went viral online, sparking calls for protests over his arrest.
But the story is a bit more complex. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, agents had made several attempts to serve Aker an order to appear in federal court, dating to 2012.
“Marshals spoke with Aker by phone and requested he appear in court, but Aker refused,” the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement. “A federal judge then issued a warrant for Aker’s arrest for failing to appear at a December 14, 2012, hearing.”
After years of trying to serve Aker at various addresses, agents caught up with him on Thursday, according to the agency. Marshals claim that two deputies attempted to arrest him, but Aker resisted, retreated to his home and told the deputies he had a gun.
“After Aker made the statement that he was armed . . . the deputies requested additional law enforcement assistance,” the Marshals Service said. “After approximately two hours, officers convinced Aker to peacefully exit his home, and he was arrested without further incident.”
In the end, Aker was ordered to pay $1,258 to reimburse the federal government for his arrest, in addition to the $3,800 he now owes on the loan, which more than doubled as interest accrued, according to court documents.
It’s not uncommon for federal agents to get involved in the collection of past due student debt. The U.S. Department of Education hands over old cases of delinquent debt to the Justice Department after trying to recoup the money through private collection agencies, wage garnishment or withholding tax refunds. Justice typically files a lawsuit, using third-party attorneys to handle such cases.
Thousands of people across the country are summoned to appear in court over defaulted federal student debt, according to the Marshals Service. In Houston alone, marshals say about 1,500 people have been identified for not appearing in court to address their outstanding federal student loans, resulting in arrest warrants.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, who appeared with Aker on Fox, railed against the use of marshals to recoup debt for private collection agencies.
“There’s got to be a better way to collect on a student debt that’s so old,” Green told Fox. “Our federal resources, our U.S. marshals and the federal court system are being used by the private sector,” Green said.
The lengths to which the government will go to collect on student loans has been called into question in recent years. There are at least 22 states that will revoke driver’s licenses or professional licenses when people default on their student loans. State legislatures in Iowa and Montana have worked to repeal those laws. Federal lawmakers want to the government to limit the amount of money that can be withheld from Social Security benefits to repay student debt.