February 16, 2016
(ANTIMEDIA) Houston, Texas — A Houston man was arrested last Thursday over outstanding federal student loan debt left over from nearly three decades ago. Though he owed only $1,500, seven U.S. Marshals wearing combat gear and wielding automatic weapons aggressively arrested him — and authorities have said they will serve many more arrest warrants for outstanding educational bills in the near future.
“They grabbed me, they threw me down,“ 48-year-old Paul Aker told the New York Daily News on Tuesday.“Local PD is just standing there.“
Aker obtained the loan to attend Prairie View A&M University in 1987, and was unaware that he still owed the government money. He says he received no prior notification before the arrest was made, but on Thursday morning, saw a suspicious truck parked outside his home. Aker says when someone approached him, he ran into his residence. Later that morning, the U.S. Marshals approached, initially refusing to tell him why they were there.
“I say, ‘What is this all about?’” Aker told the Daily News. “They say, ‘Shut up, you know what this is all about.’ I don’t have a clue.” He says that when he continued to ask questions, he was told, “you know what this is all about.”
Eventually, the Marshals informed him their visit was a result of his 30-year-old debt. “You could have sent me a letter. You could have called me,” Aker reportedly said.
He says he was ordered into the back of a truck and taken to a cell at a federal facility in downtown Houston. He was later taken to court, where he dealt with a judge, a county clerk, and a prosecutor, and says he was never read his rights. Further, Aker says the prosecutor actually turned out to be a collections lawyer. According to his account, the judge felt obliged to teach him a lesson.
“Then I get a lecture (from the judge) about the United States and stealing from the government,“ he recounted. He was ordered to pay $5,700, including interest, for the original $1,500 loan. If he does not pay by March 1, he will be arrested again. He is also ordered to pay for the cost of his own arrest.
Following publication of this story, U.S. Marshals disputed Aker’s account. According to the Houston Chronicle:
“‘Since November 2012, U.S. Marshals had made several attempts to serve a show cause order to Paul Aker to appear in federal court, including searching at numerous known addresses. Marshals spoke with Aker by phone and requested he appear in court, but Aker refused. A federal judge then issued a warrant for Aker’s arrest for failing to appear at a Dec. 14, 2012, hearing,’ the agency said in a statement Tuesday.”
The Marshals’ statement continued:
“The situation escalated when Aker verbally said to the deputies that he had a gun. After Aker made the statement that he was armed, in order to protect everyone involved, the deputies requested additional law enforcement assistance. Additional deputy marshals and local law enforcement officers responded to the scene. After approximately two hours, the law enforcement officers convinced Aker to peacefully exit his home, and he was arrested without further incident.”
Regardless, it is newly-acquired or decades-old, student loan debt has been a pressing issue in the United States for years. As the costs of college have soared, graduates have been dismayed to find few job opportunities, and therefore, left with few resources to repay their loans. Student loan debt in America totals over $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt and prompting politicians, including President Obama, to propose countless solutions. The average student loan debt sum for 2015 college graduates is over $35,000.
According to local news Fox 26, U.S. Marshals intend to serve between 1,200 and 1,500 more arrest warrants to individuals who have not repaid their debt. Texas Representative Gene Green, a Democrat, told Fox the crackdown is a result of the government’s recent decision to hire private debt collectors to resolve borrowers’ outstanding fees. These collectors “are getting judgements in federal court and asking judges to use the US Marshals Service to arrest those who have failed to pay their federal student loans.”
While it is not unreasonable to assume a borrower will eventually pay back funds, it is questionable whether authorities really needed the show of force they used against Aker, whether or not he received prior notification of his bills. Americans are increasingly skeptical of heavily-armed law enforcement officers, whether they are policing protests or waging narcotics raids. That this warrior mentality is apparently now being applied to debtors over relatively small sums of cash provides further cause for concern.
“There’s bound to be a better way to collect on a student loan debt that is so old,“ Green observed.
Aker expressed anxiety over the way he was notified of his obligations.“I am still shaken,“ Aker told the Daily News. “I had to go to work yesterday, and it was hard to drive to work, for the fear of someone coming. I am looking out the window and I have things to do today, and I am still afraid to go outside.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include statements from the U.S. Marshals that dispute Aker’s version of events.
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