Another Fine Mess: Bailiffs Quick to Lock Up Debtors

44-year-old taxi driver spends three weeks in prison for failure to pay two traffic fines.

When G. went to his local police station earlier this month to report the theft of his car, he was shocked to be immediately arrested.

A 44-year-old taxi driver, G. has spent the last three weeks in jail at Abu Kabir Prison for his failure to pay two traffic fines. One of the fines, NIS 3,000, is for a 1999 violation, while the other, for NIS 10,000, is due since 2007. When the courts issued each of these fines, they stipulated that if they weren't paid, he would have to serve jail time - 90 days for the first violation, and 150 days for the second.

G. claims that he never got the court judgment obligating him to pay the fines, hence his disbelief at his predicament.

The arresting officer said that if he didn't come up with NIS 13,000 within the hour, he would be sent to jail, which is how he finds himself in Abu Kabir today. His attorney, Maya Rosenfeld of the Public Defender's Office, is trying to get the imprisonment order canceled and to secure a hearing on G.'s case.

G. was apparently enmeshed in what defense attorneys say is several months of stepped-up efforts by the Enforcement and Collection Authority to seek imprisonment for offenders who were fined in criminal cases. (The ECA, a body set up in 2009, inherited what is commonly known as Hotzaa Lepo'al, the Bailiff's Office. )

According to the ECA, in 2011 the courts received 7,000 requests for imprisonment orders against debtors, and 700 new ones are requested every month.

Unpaid fines total NIS 360 million, representing 52,000 criminal cases in which fines have not been paid.

The ECA claims it is acting on unwritten guidelines from the Justice Ministry, to the effect that before securing an imprisonment order from a court in such cases, there is no need to take any preliminary steps - such as warning the debtor, attaching his assets or even restraining him from leaving the country.

A legal source familiar with the procedure said this was because the court had stipulated the pay-or-prison condition in its judgment, making preliminaries before implementing the sentence unnecessary.

The procedure made the headlines on Monday with the arrest of Benny Ravizada, dubbed "the gray market's Bank of Israel," for not paying a fine of over NIS 2 million imposed on him in 2007 for tax evasion. His sentence called for 850 days' imprisonment if he did not pay the fine.

According to the ECA, Ravizada had paid part of the fine, but was not keeping up with the payment schedule set for him.

But the fervor with which the ECA has been seeking imprisonment orders without giving the debtor a chance to respond is to be reviewed in the Supreme Court, where the state this week appealed a decision by Petah Tikva Magistrate's Court Judge Noga Ohad to free one such debtor.

Ohad made that ruling in the case of Oleg, who had been convicted of violence and drug charges. He was fined a total of NIS 26,000, with the stipulation that if he did not pay, he would be imprisoned.

Last month, a police representative called his parents' home and asked Oleg to come to the police station "to clarify something." When he arrived, he was handcuffed, arrested and sent to Nitzan Prison, even though, he claims, he has paid all but NIS 1,500 of the fine.

Ohad voided the imprisonment order, saying, "A situation in which a person is summoned by telephone to a police station on some pretext, and when he arrives, he is sent to prison without being given the basic right to respond ... contravene's natural justice and the constitutional obligation to conduct due process before replacing a fine with jail."