Consumer Law

Judge erred by jailing man over $508.27 debt, observers contend

A 73-year-old Massachusetts man who says he and his wife have struggled financially in recent years was jailed earlier this month because he couldn’t pay a $508.27 debt.

Finding that Iheanyi Okoroafor could have afforded to do so, because he receives a state pension of $2,000 per month, a Belchertown District Court judge held him in contempt on June 11 and ordered him jailed for 30 days, the Boston Globe reports.

However, legal experts not involved in the case say the unusual order lacked an adequate legal basis, because state pension money can’t be considered income for this purpose. They also questioned why his assets, if any, weren’t investigated more fully, to see if Okoroafor actually had any money to satisfy the small-claims-court default judgment at issue.

“The judge’s decision was absolutely horrifying, and an abuse of discretion. He showed no empathy and no humanity,’’ attorney Greta LaMountain Biagi, who was present in the courtroom representing a client in an unrelated case, told the newspaper.

The judge is unable to comment, a court spokeswoman told the newspaper. However, in general “the applicability of a statute is a legal question decided by judges in the context of a particular case,” said spokeswoman Erika Gully-Santiago. “Judges apply the law to the facts they deem credible in rendering decisions.”

The Globe provides a link to an audiotape of the June 11 court hearing.

Okoroafor was released from jail around 2 a.m. on June 12, after an adult daughter drove some 100 miles from Boston to the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton and paid the debt on his behalf.

Okoroafor argues that he not only couldn’t afford to pay but shouldn’t have had to pay, because a plaintiff contractor billed him without doing promised work. But it appears he was hampered in his ability to defend the case because he didn’t have a lawyer, the Globe reports. He told the newspaper his wife has dementia, the couple is several months behind on utility bills and has been getting free food from a food bank in order to eat.

His perception is that judges involved in his case at various points “were trying to teach me a lesson because I demanded my rights. I have gone through a lot, too much really.’’

The contractor called Okoroafor “an idiot” and told the newspaper he has lost more than the amount at issue by having to sit through a half-dozen court hearings.

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