By Jerry Davich for Chicago Tribune
Melissa Welch-Latronica had no idea why she got pulled over by a Valparaiso police officer earlier this month.
He informed her that she failed to affix her 2019 sticker to her license plate. She apologized and handed him her driver’s license. Then she waited, and waited.
She noticed a second police car pull up behind the first vehicle. This is when she began feeling anxiety while looking at the squad car’s flashers in her mirror.
“I have no felonies or anything on my record,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
The officer returned to her minivan and asked her step out of it. Why? There was a warrant for her arrest, she was told. It’s from a civil case in 2014 when she failed to appear in court for an unpaid ambulance bill.
Latronica, a single mother of three young children, was on her way to deliver important paperwork to a county agency, she said.
“Or else I could lose my home,” she told the officer.
“Sorry ma’am,” the officer replied.
Latronica was handcuffed behind her vehicle, which was impounded.
Valparaiso police confirmed that an officer transported Latronica to Porter County Jail, where she was booked Feb. 11 and placed into a cell.
“I was scared to death. I had never been in a jail cell. And I couldn’t afford the $1,500 bond,” Latronica told me.
Her personal items were confiscated. Her mugshot was taken.
“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.”
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.
She never paid that bill.
She doesn’t recall receiving the bill after moving from Portage to LaPorte, where she now lives. She also doesn’t recall receiving notices to appear in court for the unpaid bill or outstanding civil warrant, she said.
“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.”
Latronica ended up staying two nights and three days in jail because of multiple delays, including the weather-related closure of the county courthouse. She was 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.
Anderson made numerous phone calls to different county government departments, as well as making a $400 payment to the law firm involved in her daughter’s case, she said.
“I was getting extremely frustrated,” she said.
She learned that a warrant was issued for Latronica in 2016.
“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.”
Latronica’s case is not uncommon in our country. I found hundreds of similar cases through online searches. Debt collectors and attorneys are allowed to use the legal system to collect an unpaid bill, or a portion of it.
It’s easy to ignore these medical bills, especially when you can’t afford to pay them. I’ve been in this situation too many times. And I’ve received too many calls from attorneys reminding me that anything I say can be used against me to collect owed money. Not once were those attorneys kind to me or sympathetic to my situation.
They simply wanted that medical bill paid, or their portion of it. Period.
I understand the anger and frustration from Latronica and her mother. They feel the legal system is taking advantage of low-income, vulnerable citizens. And I agree that three days in jail is too harsh of punishment over an unpaid ambulance bill from five years ago.
The key thing to keep in mind is that the warrant was ordered against Latronica for her failure to appear in court, not for failure to pay that bill. I’ve learned that it’s wiser to show up, make that awkward call, and make an attempt to pay the bill. I once paid a doctor bill over the course of four years at $25 a month.
As for Latronica, she still owes roughly $1,200 for that outstanding bill unless she can prove to the court she’s unable to pay it.
“It just isn’t right,” she told me outside the jail after she was released.