Senior citizen jailed over $500 debt
A 73-year-old retiree was taken away in handcuffs after failing to pay a $508.27 debt to a local contractor.
Iheanyi D. Okoroafor was detained on June 11.
[Judge] Murphy’s decision that Okoroafor had the money to settle the debt, according to an audiotape of the hearing, was based on the fact that Okoroafor receives a $2,000 monthly state pension. Under state law, however, state pensions cannot be considered by the court as income when calculating whether a defendant has the resources to pay off such a debt.
Compounding that apparent error, the judge made his decision without asking whether Okoroafor had a bank account and, if so, whether it held any funds.
Greta LaMountain Biagi, an Amherst attorney who was in the courtroom for an unrelated case, said she was moved to tears when Okoroafor was taken away in handcuffs.
“The judge’s decision was absolutely horrifying, and an abuse of discretion. He showed no empathy and no humanity,’’ said Biagi, who represents consumers in personal bankruptcy cases.
Okoroafor was released around 2 a.m. the next day, after his daughter drove from Boston to the Hampshire County Jail and paid the debt.
According to Dalié Jiménez, a law professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, Massachusetts law exempts state pension income from debtor judgements. She told the Globe that, “the judge could not have ordered Mr. Okoroafor to pay the judgment from this income.’’
A court spokeswoman avoided questions about whether Murphy might have legally stumbled regarding the ruling, or whether court officials believed his decision to jail the elderly man was justified. She said judges cannot comment on pending cases.
Evidence shows that the judge made a decision that was not only harsh, but in violation of state law. Should he be reprimanded?
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