Consumer advocates say no one is suggesting people should ignore court orders.
But in some cases, consumers might not be aware they have a court date because they moved and didn't receive the notice, advocates said. Sometimes consumers are pursued by debt collectors for money they don't owe or no longer recognize because the debt has been sold and resold so many times, advocates said.
Or, defendants often are confused by court notices, particularly if they aren't proficient in English.
Jacob Ouslander, a staff attorney of Legal Aid in Baltimore, said that his group last year helped a Korean immigrant in Howard County who was arrested in a case involving a $1,600 judgment against her more than 10 years ago. Her former landlord continued to pursue the judgment by having her repeatedly summoned to court, Ouslander said, even though she had no assets and her sole income was Social Security — which is protected from creditors.
Because of her limited English and confusion over the repeated notices, the client missed a hearing, and the landlord requested a body attachment, he said. She was arrested at her home and later released after a relative posted bail.
Holland of the Consumer Protection Clinic noted that only a small number of creditors and debt collectors routinely resort to body attachments in small claims court cases, where the rules of evidence are more informal.
"The question is: Should you deprive someone of personal liberty when the underlying offense is based on a small claim based on very relaxed proof?" he said.
Of the 1,830 body attachments issued by Maryland's small claims courts last fiscal year, 222 were in the Baltimore City district, where one defendant spent the night in jail, according to the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.
But 778 orders, or 43 percent, were issued in Baltimore County. Of those, 27 defendants were incarcerated, the group found.
It's up to judges to issue body attachments, and consumer advocates and legal experts say they don't know why their use is far more prevalent in Baltimore County.
One of those county residents arrested last year was Bookman.
The 26-year-old said he had been working at a distribution center a few years ago when he leased an apartment in Essex. But after a few months, he was out of work and struggling to meet the rent, which ballooned with late fees. He moved back in with his mother near the end of his lease and figured the security deposit was more than enough to cover any rent owed, Bookman said.
But the matter didn't end there. His landlord, Sawyer Property Management of Maryland, received a $2,616 judgment against him in 2010. Sawyer did not return calls for comment, and its lawyer declined to comment.
Bookman said he doesn't recall receiving all the notices in his case, and by the time he responded, the judge had already ruled against him. He still didn't have a steady job to pay the debt.
His arrest came last April.
"It was the most scariest thing in my life," Bookman said, adding that he shared a cell with a gang member and someone arrested for robbery.
By the next day, his mother, Felicia Bookman, scraped together the $250 needed to spring her son.
"That's a debtors' prison. I thought that went out in the 1920s," she said.