Yes, you can be jailed during the debt collection process in California

If you are familiar with Dickens' works, you are probably familiar with the concept of debtor's prisons. These prisons were used to jail people who could not pay their debts. Although they are best known to have been used in England, debtor's prisons were used in the United States up until the mid-1800s. After this time, the U.S. government outlawed imprisonment for failure to pay a debt on the federal level.

Although imprisonment for debt is not common on the state level, in some states it is still possible to go to jail during the debt collection process. In California, you can be arrested and jailed if you fail to appear at a debtor's examination.

Debtor's examinations

A debtor's examination, which is also called an Order of Examination, is a step that debt collectors can take before they start attempting to collect a debt from you. This examination can only take place after a creditor has sued you and obtained a judgment against you.

Once a court has awarded a judgment against you, creditors use various means to find out what assets you have, so they can force you to pay the judgment. If a creditor has difficulties finding assets, it has the option of asking the court to force you to attend a debtor's examination. The examination itself is a court proceeding where creditors ask you under oath about the value and locations of your assets, such as sources of income, bank accounts, investments, real property, or personal property.

Once a creditor has learned about your income and assets, it may ask the court to garnish your wages or bank accounts. During this process, a portion of your wages or bank account is turned over to your creditors to repay the judgment against you. Alternatively, the creditors may use the information learned during the examination to later force the sale of any real or personal property that you have which is not exempt from sale by law.

Under California law, you must be served in person with a notice of the debtor's examination (which also orders you to attend the examination) at least 10 days before the proceeding. If you do not attend the examination, the court has the power to find you in contempt of disobeying its order to attend. Once you are found in contempt, the court may issue a warrant ordering law enforcement to arrest and jail you, so you may be brought before the court. If the court finds that you do not have a sufficient reason for missing the examination, it may force you to pay the attorneys' fees of your creditors on top of the judgment against you.

Bankruptcy can help

If creditors have obtained a judgment against you, it is important to take quick action. One of the options available to you is to file for bankruptcy. Once bankruptcy has been filed, the automatic stay prevents creditors from taking any further collection actions against you (e.g. suing you for payment, garnishing your wages or selling your property). In addition, it can wipe away many types of debt, allowing you to keep most of your property from your creditors' hands.

Although bankruptcy can be helpful, it may or may not be right for your situation. If you are facing collection attempts from creditors, or have merely fallen behind on your bills, contact an experienced bankruptcy attorney. An attorney can consider your situation and recommend the debt relief option that would be best for you.