Man in Texas is arrested by armed U.S. marshals and local police for not paying his student loans.

When Paul Aker walked out to the mailbox in front of his Texas home last week, two armed U.S. Marshals were waiting for him. They said they were there to arrest him, a complete surprise to Aker. Not knowing whom these armed men really were (and because this is Texas, after all) Aker went back inside his home “to get my gun.”

The two U.S. Marshals called for backup and a standoff ensued, where the armed Aker stayed inside his home for the next two hours, refusing them entry. But finally, when five more local police officers arrived, Aker understood that they were legit and came out and surrender. He was placed under arrest, handcuffed, and put in the back of a squad car to be brought to jail.

What was Aker’s crime? He hadn’t paid a $1,500 student loan.

The original loan, which Aker borrowed in 1987, unpaid for all that time, had now accrued so much interest and fees that the balance was $5,700. Aker later had to appear in front of a judge and agreed to start paying $200 a month on a court-ordered installment plan.

“I’m still shaken,” Aker later said. “Why send seven guys with guns about a student loan?”

Although Aker denies knowledge of the outstanding debt, saying he thought it had been consolidated long ago with two other student loans he paid off, that claim is dubious. Reportedly, the U.S. Marshals Service has been trying to track him down and contact him over the delinquent loan for years, and they even had a phone conversation with him in 2012 in which they requested his appearance in court, which Aker says he doesn’t remember.

Finally, after Aker failed to appear in court, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest in December of 2012.

Are other people being arrested for not paying student loans?
When it comes to being arrested for not paying student loans, Aker isn’t alone. In fact, arrest warrants were issued for 25 people in the Houston area alone last year, with 7 being arrested by Marshals or police and the remaining “criminals” turning themselves in voluntarily.

Will more Americans start getting arrested for failure to pay their student loans?

There are now 43.3 million Americans with student loan debt, owing a collective $1.3 trillion with an average balance of $35,000.

Former students – and especially Millenials – are having a harder time keeping up with payments that ever. According to the New York Federal Reserve, about 11% of all federal student loans are in default (which means they are more than 9 months behind.) Other estimates report student loan defaults at a whopping 17%. And Texas is a particularly indebted state when it comes to student loans, with $75 billion in debt, up 7% just since the previous year and a default rate of 20.5% – an alarming one out of five.

But even high default rates still don’t justify U.S. Marshalls arresting student loan scofflaws, does it?

How does the legal system work when people don’t pay their student loans?
Here is how the debt collection protocol meets the legal system:

After not paying for 90 days (usually 3 payments), the student loan becomes delinquent, and probably starts reporting negatively on the borrower’s credit.

Unlike other consumer debt that may hit collections after the 90-day mark, student loans usually aren’t considered in default until 9 months have gone by. At that point the lender has made several attempts to contact the borrower and set payment arrangements. But if it’s not reconciled or the borrower isn’t communicating, then it’s probably sent to a collection agency.

Once the collection agency takes assignment of the debt, they will make overtures to the borrower as well. But eventually they can file a judgment to have the borrower’s wages garnished, tax refunds withheld, or other assets seized.

So where does the courts and the criminal justice system come in play?
The collection agencies cannot have the borrower arrested but can sue them. With that litigation comes a court appearance. If the borrower fails to appear, then the judge can issue a warrant for their arrest – and the U.S. Marshals come knocking.

Of course by that time, the balance is so bloated with delinquent interest, late fees, collection fees and court costs that the balance is often far higher than the original loan.

Still, this type of aggressive action of having someone actually arrested is rare, though it is not the first time. In 2003, U.S. Marshals were arresting people in the Twin Cities for unpaid student loans, as part of “Operation Anaconda Squeeze.”

Even though debtors’ prisons have been outlawed in the U.S. since 1833, student loan companies and collection agencies are finding a way to have people arrested anyway, taking advantage of the loophole where borrowers can be issued an arrest warrant for failing to appear in court, not technically failure to pay the debt.

With aggressive legal action, issuance of warrants, and more arrests in Texas, look for more states to adopt these practices – which means that U.S. Marshals may be coming to a mailbox near you.