Tuesday afternoon, Governor Bullock signed a bill that will end the harmful practice of suspending driver’s licenses of people who are unable to pay court debt.

The previous law required Montana’s Motor Vehicle Division to suspend the driver’s license of any person who was unable to pay court debt.  Every year, Montana was suspending the driver’s license of more than 10,000 low-income people who cannot afford to pay court debt – even when the reason for their fines and fees had nothing to do with crimes that threatened the safety of our roads.

The ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity-MT worked in tandem to educate lawmakers about the harms of taking away driver’s license from people who often need to drive to get to work and care for their family.

“This is a big win for Montana,” said SK Rossi, Advocacy and Policy Director with the ACLU of Montana.  “It’s encouraging to see legislators and Governor Bullock recognize that debt-based driver’s license suspensions are a penalty on poverty, a barrier to people getting and keeping jobs, and an ineffective way for the government to collect money.”

The bill, HB 217, introduced by State Representative Casey Knudsen (R-Malta), generated support from a coalition of groups from across the ideological spectrum, including business owners, advocates for the rights of low-income people, Americans for Tax Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

“This is a great day for thousands of Montanans who will now be able to legally maintain their ability to drive to work, provide for their families, and pay the fines they owe in a timely manner,” said David Herbst, Americans for Prosperity-Montana State Director. “This legislation is a wonderful example of what can happen when we put people over politics and unite to solve problems. Our criminal justice system should keep our communities safe and recognize the potential in every person to improve their lives. It’s great to see Montana moving one step closer to that ideal.”

With the passage of HB 217, Montana has emerged as a national leader in ending this harmful practice.  The vast majority of states either require or permit a person’s driver’s license to be suspended for failure to pay court-related debt, including fines and fees. A consensus is emerging that these practices are not only unfair but counterproductive. The Supreme Court has held that a person’s ability to pay must be considered before they are punished for nonpayment of a court fine, prompting civil rights lawsuits in multiple states over the last several years.  

The new law – banning the practice of debt-based driver’s license suspensions in Montana will go into effect immediately.

Contact: Kirsten Bokenkamp, ACLU of Montana, 334-314-6582; bokenkampk@aclumontana.org