Less than two hours after he was arrested for not paying an outstanding debt, Rex Iverson, 45, was found unresponsive in a holding cell at a jail in Box Elder County, Utah. An ambulance was summoned and he was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital.
Iverson was jailed, ironically, because he had failed to pay a $2,376.92 ambulance bill he incurred on Christmas Eve 2013. The bill was owed to the Tremonton City ambulance service, which won a judgment against him in small claims court in September 2014.
He subsequently ignored orders to appear in a Utah justice court, which led a county sheriff’s deputy to serve a bench warrant on him on January 23, 2016 – the day he was jailed and subsequently died.
According to Chrissy Sabala, who said Iverson was “like a brother” to her and her three sisters, he didn’t pay the ambulance bill because he simply couldn’t. She said he had lived in a kind of suspended animation since his parents died in a car crash several years earlier; he continued to stay in their house but had no source of income.
“He just didn’t have any money,” said Sabala. “When those people died, his life stopped.”
“He didn’t have a job that we know of,” added Sharri Oyler, Tremonton’s city treasurer, who noted the city pursues 7 to 10 bad-debt cases each month.
“We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants,” Box Elder County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dale Ward stated.
But sheriff’s offices are required to serve bench warrants issued by the courts, and civil warrants are lumped in with those from criminal cases.
“How can you get blood out of a turnip?” asked Josh Daniels with the Utah-based Libertas Institute. “The thing about going to jail, your time does not pay your debt.... A person should be obliged to pay, but putting him in jail doesn’t solve the problem.”
In November 2016, Ward announced that the Medical Examiner’s Office had determined Iverson’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. A search of Iverson’s home revealed a bottle containing strychnine and unused, empty gel capsules.
“At some point Mr. Iverson ingested an unknown and fatal amount of strychnine, likely contained in gel capsules,” Ward said.
He explained the capsules were too small to be detected during pat-down searches after Iverson was arrested. At 1:10 p.m., a deputy spoke to Iverson in his holding cell. But 30 minutes later, when the deputy returned to complete the booking process, he was unresponsive. At the time, authorities said the cause of death was unknown and there was no evidence of foul play.
The Northern Utah Critical Incident Team investigated the case with the help of the Brigham City Police Department and Cache County Sheriff’s Office. They learned from Iverson’s acquaintances that he had said “if he were ever arrested that he would ingest a poison ... to take his own life so that he would not have to go to jail,” Ward said. “It appears that Mr. Iverson had pre-planned this type of situation and had reached a conclusion as to what he would do.”
Iverson’s death put a spotlight on Utah’s justice courts and how they are used to have debtors arrested and jailed. The Standard-Examiner reported that from 2013 to 2016, 13 people were jailed in Box Elder County on civil bench warrants due to unpaid debts to government agencies. Throughout Utah, 3,872 civil bench warrants were issued by district courts and 1,610 were issued by justice courts in 2015 alone. Critics claim that this results in de facto debtors’ prisons – which are unconstitutional, according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Iverson was first arrested because of the ambulance debt in 2014; he was released on the promise that he would appear in court.
“The bottom line, he just continued to ignore this thing,” said Ward. “What made it worse is the fact that he was thumbing his nose at a public entity, Tremonton Ambulance.”
But worst of all is that a man was driven to kill himself after being jailed over a debt he was unable to pay – and by taking his own life, he ensured it would remain unpaid.
Sources: Standard-Examiner, www.rawstory.com
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