La Porte, IN — A traffic stop for a missing sticker on her car led to a single Indiana mom's arrest last month—after police discovered this mom was a "criminal" because she was unable to pay her medical bills.
Melissa Welch-Latronica didn't know why police stopped her last month as she was not breaking any laws. The officer told her that she failed to put the 2019 sticker on her license plate, so he needed to see her driver's license and registration.
As she waited for her citation over a license plate sticker—which was in her car—another cop pulled up.
“I have no felonies or anything on my record,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Police then informed the single mother of three that she was going to be arrested because she had an unpaid ambulance bill from 2014 and failed to appear in court over it. Latronica had no idea how this could get her arrested and begged police to let her come to the station later as she was on her way to an extremely important meeting.
“I was cuffed behind my van, my vehicle was impounded, and I pleaded to them just let me turn in this paperwork, so I didn’t lose my home,” she said.
“Sorry ma’am,” the officer replied.
These public servants then removed the woman from her car, handcuffed her, brought her to jail, and locked her in a cage—over an unpaid medical bill.
“I was scared to death. I had never been in a jail cell. And I couldn't afford the $1,500 bond,” Latronica told Jerry Davich with the Chicago Tribune.
“I was in a cell fit for a murderer,” she recalled. “I slept on disgusting mat on a concrete floor in a tiny room, next to a musty water drain that was more like a sewer. I was treated like a dog from staff members, served food through a door hole, and showered in an open area with actual felons.”
“I had nothing to do but stare at the four concrete walls and listen to catcalls from felons down the hall, or the vomiting from inmates going through drug withdrawals,” she said. “All this because I failed to pay off an ambulance bill. My crime was having a heart attack.”
As Davich explains:
In July 2014, Latronica was eight months pregnant with her third child when she felt dizzy while sitting on her bed. She felt her heart racing, and her lungs gasping for air. She ended up on the living room floor that day, she told me. Her husband at the time called 911. An ambulance arrived at their Portage home.
Latronica recalls paramedics placing an oxygen mask on her face in the ambulance and later staring at the hospital ceiling from an emergency room bed. She was diagnosed with a mild heart attack and later released. She survived the medical scare, gave birth to her daughter, and moved on with her life.
The ambulance bill was more than $3,000, she said.
“Ambulances are expensive. Most people know that. But most people also don't have a choice but to take them when an emergency hits,” Latronica said.
Latronica never recalls receiving the bill, much less paying it because she had moved from Portage to La Porte shortly after. She says the bill and the notice to appear in court never made it to her new home.
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“I don't know if it was through lack of trying on the attorney’s end, or if it was my own ignorance,” Latronica said. “Either way, what happened five years later is, in my opinion, truly unacceptable.”
For an unpaid medical bill, Latronica spent the next two nights and three days in jail, away from her children, locked in a cage fit for murderers and violent criminals. She was eventually released by court order Feb. 13, according to the Porter County Sheriff’s Department.
“How silly and stupid that a single mom of three was sitting in a jail cell for three days over this petty issue,” said Latronica’s mother, Dawn Anderson.
“A failure to appear violation for an ambulance bill should not be treated the same as a failure to appear for an actual felony,” Latronica said. “People should not be punished for an outstanding debt over their medical issues or their social status.”
Indeed. Sadly, however, people who find themselves unable to pay their bills often find themselves on the receiving end of the police state. Despite the fact that debtor's prisons are illegal in the United States, TFTP has reported on numerous incidents like the one in which Latronica found herself.
It's not just medical bills either. Unpaid college loans have also landed people in cages as well as visits from SWAT teams.
As TFTP previously reported, in what could be a story straight out of the Onion, but sadly played out in reality, a Texas man was arrested by seven heavily armed U.S. Marshals for failing to pay an almost 30-year-old student loan debt.
The man, Paul Aker, 48, said he was caught off-guard by the heavily armed agents that showed up at his home to arrest him for failing to pay the nearly 3-decades old debt.
"They grabbed me, they threw me down," Aker told the Daily News. "Local PD is just standing there."
Aker’s arrest for a 30-year-old, $1,500 dollar debt was disturbing enough; but taken in concert with the fact that simply being an owner of a firearm, a protected right under the U.S. Constitution, was reason enough for agents to arrive in combat gear and with fully automatic weapons raises the ominous specter of the police state rising.
After being arrested, Aker was held at the federal building in downtown Houston, before being brought to a courtroom, where a "prosecutor," judge and county clerk were present, according to the NY Daily News. Aker said the alleged “prosecutor” was really a collection lawyer.
"Then I get a lecture (from the judge) about the United States and stealing from the government," Aker said.
It is extremely worrisome that armed agents of the state are being used to bully people into paying delinquent student loan debt and medical bills. There has to be a more intelligent manner in which to attempt to reconcile these debts than to send heavily armed men to arrest those either unwilling or more than likely unable to pay.
It speaks to the nature of the state itself that the default position is virtually always one of coercive force rather than to intellectually assess the means that will most likely provide the desired result – a reconciled debt.
If you deprive someone of their freedom, they will never be able to pay their debt, and in fact, it will cost the taxpayers far more. However, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail—including single mothers of three, unable to pay medical bills.