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Vermont judge improperly issued arrest warrants for debts

July 26, 2019

COLCHESTER, Vt. (AP) — Over 17 years, a Vermont small claims judge issued about 200 arrest warrants for debtors, which is illegal under state law, records show.

Vermont Public Radio reports that many of the debtors, who owed $5,000 or less, were forced to pay creditors without due process or access to a lawyer even if they didn’t have the ability to pay.

Vermont Legal Aid learned of the practice and along with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reviewed 30 cases. In May 2018, the groups sent a letter to the state’s chief superior judge.

In January, former Caledonia County Assistant Judge Roy Vance, who issued the warrants, resigned at the suggestion of Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson. At the time, Vance, a 32-year assistant judge, said he was stepping down for health reasons.

Vance told VPR he signed the warrants, but he said court officials should have noticed his errors and corrected him.

Occasionally the warrants were appealed by private attorneys and overturned by Superior Court judges, but no one questioned the underlying cases.

Grearson said that even when a Superior Court judge overturned the arrest warrants, it’s unlikely the judge would have looked at the case in depth.

“So it doesn’t surprise me that nothing happened as a result,” he said.

“Putting out arrest warrants about debt is something that most people recoil at the idea of,” said Jay Diaz, of the Vermont ACLU. “It’s really unbelievable to me that this situation could happen.”

Grearson said the Vermont judicial system does not plan to contact people whose cases were improperly handled in Vance’s courtroom.

The records on the arrest warrants dated to 2002, when the records began to be kept.

In Vermont, small claims cases are overseen by part-time volunteer lawyers who receive no training; part-time, elected non-lawyer assistant judges like Vance, who sit through a one-time, 100-hour training program; hearings officers and others.

In Vermont, there are two part-time elected assistant judges in each of the 14 counties. They usually help administer county issues. They do not need to be lawyers.

In March 2016, arrest warrants were issued for Crystal and Quentin Knowles, of Lunenburg, after they failed to pay $391.63 to a Lyndonville hardware store for a chain saw that had been purchased on store credit.

They had agreed to make monthly payments, but they said they didn’t have the money to make them.

Crystal Knowles was arrested in front of her children and taken to court, where she was given a new hearing date. They made a required $100 payment by borrowing the money from family. The Knowles are still working to pay off the debt.

“I’ll say it, we’re poor,” Quentin Knowles said. “And that’s just the way Vermont treats poor people.”


Information from: WVPS-FM, http://www.vpr.net

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