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Caledonia Judge Unlawfully Ordered Arrests Of Debtors For Years

A woman holds a young boy on an unfinished porch while a man looks on.
Elodie Reed
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VPR
Crystal Knowles was pregnant with her son Bentley, now 2, when Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby arrested her after she and her husband, Quentin, missed a small claims court hearing. It is illegal to arrest people for unpaid debts.

It’s been more than 150 years since it was legal to arrest people in Vermont for unpaid debts.

And yet over the last two decades, roughly 200 debtors in Caledonia County’s small claims court were issued arrest warrants, often after missing hearings or failing to make payments.

Although there was no legal basis for it, small claims debtors — who face debts of $5,000 or less — were arrested and at times forced to pay creditors hundreds of dollars without due process or access to a lawyer.

"Putting out arrest warrants about debt is something that most people recoil at the idea of." — Jay Diaz, ACLU of Vermont

“Putting out arrest warrants about debt is something that most people recoil at the idea of,” said Jay Diaz of the ACLU of Vermont. “It’s really unbelievable to me, that this situation could happen.”

Retired Assistant Judge Roy Vance issued the warrants during his 22 years on the bench overseeing small claims.

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Following years of issuing illegal arrest warrants for unpaid debts under $5,000, assistant judge Roy Vance stepped down from the bench this past January at the suggestion of Chief Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson.

In an interview at his home in Danville, Vance did not dispute allegations investigated by the Judicial Conduct Board that he had violated state law and the Vermont Code of Judicial Conduct by issuing the arrest warrants and demanding payment from debtors without due process.

In January, he resigned at the suggestion of Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson. According to a Judicial Conduct Board report, Vance "expressed genuine remorse for any harm done," and "cooperated fully," with the investigation.

In the interview, Vance said he wouldn’t have issued the warrants if he had known it was wrong. He blamed the court’s administration for his mistakes.

“To leave that way, I just think it was just absolutely wrong," Vance said.

According to Grearson, the Judiciary does not plan to contact defendants whose cases were improperly handled in Vance’s courtroom. Judiciary officials said they expended significant resources to provide VPR with an accounting of the 290 arrest warrants Vance issued since 2002, when their records begin.

The Arrest

Crystal Knowles was terrified. It was March 2016. She was at home with her five kids, five months pregnant and on doctor’s orders for bedrest, when the Essex County sheriff pulled into the driveway of her Lunenburg home. Sheriff Trevor Colby told Knowles that she and her husband had missed a hearing in small claims court, and he had warrants for their arrests.

Crystal and her husband Quentin owed the Lyndonville Hardware store $391.63 for a chainsaw he purchased on store credit for a logging job the previous spring, according to court records. In court, they had agreed to monthly payments, but the Knowles said they didn’t have the money to follow through.

A woman plays with a young boy.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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Crystal Knowles plays with her son Bentley, 2, who she was pregnant with when Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby showed up in her driveway and arrested her.

When their court date came around, Crystal said, their ride fell through. Crystal and Quentin didn’t have a car.

Now the sheriff was on her porch, threatening to take her to jail. “‘If you don't have one hundred dollars,’” she recalled him saying, “‘you're going to jail today.’”

Vance had issued a warrant setting $100 as so-called “purge” money needed to dissolve the arrest warrant.

What Crystal didn’t know was that arresting people for debt is illegal in Vermont. According to the lawyer who investigated the case, small claims court judges don’t have the authority to issue arrest warrants, generally speaking.

And demanding “purge” money, as Vance had done? Lawyers said there is no legal basis for that until a debtor is found both able to pay and in contempt of court.

“I thought it was legal,” Crystal said.

Frantically, Crystal called Quentin, who was unemployed. He started dialing his friends, asking for a loan.

A court document.
Credit Emily Corwin / VPR
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VPR
The arrest warrant for Quentin Knowles issued by Judge Roy Vance and delivered by Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby.

“I was worried about her health, and the baby being high risk, and the stress,” said Quentin.

They couldn’t get the money together. In front of her children, the sheriff and his deputy put Crystal in handcuffs, put her in the back of their car, and drove her to the courthouse, leaving her five children alone at home. It’s an event her now-12-year-old daughter said she remembers vividly.

Crystal didn’t end up going to jail. At the courthouse, a clerk gave her a new hearing date. That was all.

Still, the sheriff had said Quentin would need to pay his $100 purge immediately to avoid arrest. So Quentin borrowed the money from Crystal’s mom, who borrowed it from her landlord.

Quentin brought the money to the court the next morning. According to court records, a clerk sent it on to the hardware store.

A man sits with a chihuahua on his chest.
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After his wife, Crystal, was arrested for unpaid debts, Quentin Knowles borrowed $100 from Crystal's mom, who borrowed it from her landlord, to pay "purge" money. Lawyers said there is no legal basis for that until a debtor is found both able to pay and in contempt of court.

This is not how the process is supposed to work. According to Vermont law, a debtor must only pay creditors after filling out a financial disclosure and after a judge finds him or her “able to pay.” The Knowles’ income, which consisted of social security disability income and other government benefits, should have been protected. Instead, the Knowles ended up paying the court $100, money they said they would have spent on diapers or heating fuel — if they’d had it to begin with.

Indeed, when the couple appeared at their next hearing and presented Vance with a financial disclosure form, he determined they did not have the ability to pay.

Quentin’s $100 was never returned. And Vance allowed the sheriff’s $70 arrest fee to be added to the couples’ debt, even though the arrest itself was unlawful. The Knowles are still struggling to pay it all off.

Quentin said none of this is surprising.

“I’ll say it — we’re poor," he said. "And that’s just the way Vermont treats poor people."

'Shocks The Conscience'

Vance issued arrest warrants to hundreds of debtors alongside Crystal and Quentin Knowles. Many paid the unlawful "purge" money. Yet, apparently, nobody sounded the alarm.

These debtors’ arrest warrants were typed by court clerks and delivered by county sheriffs. Occasionally, they were appealed by private attorneys and overturned by Superior Court judges. But according to Vance and Judiciary officials, nobody questioned them.

If that’s so, attorney Maryellen Griffin said, “There’s something wrong with the way that system is operating.”

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Maryellen Griffin is with Vermont Legal Aid.

Griffin represents tenants in housing disputes in the Northeast Kingdom for Vermont Legal Aid. For years she had heard rumors that the small claims court was issuing arrest warrants. But it wasn’t until January 2018, when Griffin tracked down a woman with a pending warrant, that she understood the rumors were true.

“It shocks the conscience,” Griffin said. She and her colleagues began to dig.

"I've talked to people who were afraid to leave their home, afraid to walk their child to school, because they thought they were gonna be arrested." — Maryellen Griffin, Vermont Legal Aid

“I've talked to people who were afraid to leave their home, afraid to walk their child to school, because they thought they were gonna be arrested," she said.

The fact that debtors were pressured to pay money to remove the warrant was particularly disturbing to Griffin.

“There are laws in place, and there are procedures in place to make sure that people are able to meet their basic necessities of life," she said, before a court can force them to pay old debts.

The brick exterior of the Caledonia County Courthouse in St. Johnsbury.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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The Caledonia County Courthouse in St. Johnsbury.

Together, Vermont Legal Aid and the ACLU of Vermont reviewed 30 of Vance’s cases. In May 2018, the organizations sent a letter to Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson.

In January, at Grearson’s suggestion, Vance voluntarily resigned. On July 10, the Vermont Supreme Court approved a public reprimand banning Vance from holding judicial office in Vermont again.

Grearson also sent a memo to all Vermont judges, asking court staff to refer any requests for arrest warrants in small claims proceedings to the presiding Superior judge.

"The reason I resigned was because it was my fault — I issued those arrest warrants. But really, I am not to fault, because I was not notified." — Roy Vance, retired assistant judge

Vance said the court clerks and judges should have noticed his errors and corrected him sooner.

“The reason I resigned was because it was my fault — I issued those arrest warrants,” Vance started. “But really, I am not to fault,” he went on, “because I was not notified.”

Vermont’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to report when they believe another judge has violated the code. But, Grearson said, even when a Superior Court judge overturned Vance’s unlawful arrest warrants, it’s unlikely that judge would have looked at the case in depth.

“So it doesn’t surprise me that nothing happened as a result,” Grearson said.

A Bigger Problem
vpr-news-2way-smallclaims-0725.mp3

(Henry Epp, host of VPR's All Things Considered, speaks with reporter Emily Corwin about non-lawyer judges and Vermont's small claims court system).

Neither Grearson nor attorneys at Vermont Legal Aid believe other judges or assistant judges are unlawfully issuing arrest warrants in small claims court. But many people, including Daniel Richardson, the attorney appointed to investigate Vance by the Judicial Conduct Board, said what happened in Vance’s courtroom exposes bigger problems in Vermont’s judicial system.

In small claims court, Richardson said, “There’s really no oversight. I personally feel like that’s something that should change.”

He voiced these concerns in his report to the board in a lengthy footnote.

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Credit Emily Corwin / VPR
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VPR
A footnote to the final complaint delivered to the Vermont Judicial Conduct Board by special counsel Daniel Richardson.

Richardson said small claims dockets are overseen by a “rotating cast” of part-time volunteer lawyers who receive no training at all; part-time, elected non-lawyer assistant judges like Vance, who sit through a one-time, 100-hour training program; hearings officers and others.

In 2005, a legislative study committee recommended lawmakers end the practice of giving assistant judges like Vance sole judicial authority “in any proceeding except traffic cases.” Lawmakers did not heed the advice.

“The legal issues in small claims are every bit as challenging and complicated as cases worth tens of thousands of dollars,” said Griffin, the Vermont Legal Aid attorney. “I think those litigants are entitled to have judges who had the same training, education and professional background” as litigants have in civil cases.

In small claims court, "there's really no oversight. I personally feel like that's something that should change." — Daniel Richardson, attorney

The most notable difference between the courts, she pointed out, is that defendants in small claims court are usually poor people without lawyers. People like Crystal and Quentin Knowles.

And, people like Neil Burd.

Between 2001 and 2015, the Caledonia County Sheriff’s Department arrested Burd three times for the same small claims debt, according to court documents. Each time, he said, he was cuffed, put in a cop car, and taken to the courthouse. He recalled thinking at the time, “I can lose my job out of this, I can lose everything. Are they gonna make me go to jail?”

Burd said he felt pressured to agree to a payment plan even when he was on unemployment and had no eligible income. When Griffin informed Burd that the arrests were unlawful and his payments likely unnecessary, he said it shook him.

A man stands on a sidewalk with a small downtown in the distance.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
St. Johnsbury resident Neil Burd has been arrested multiple times - unlawfully so - after missing hearings for his small claims debt.

“I thought, it was the court, they’re not gonna do me wrong,” he said, seated on a bench outside the courthouse in St. Johnsbury. Now, Burd said, he feels swindled.

"I been screwed really bad,” he said, “for a long time.”

Update 3:09 p.m.: This post was updated to include an interview between All Things Considered host Henry Epp and reporter Emily Corwin about non-lawyer judges in Vermont's small claims court system.

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