Under current Montana law, the Montana Department of Justice, Motor Vehicle Division, is required to suspend the driver’s license of any person who fails to pay court debt. Every year, the state suspends the driver's licenses of more than 10,000 low-income people who cannot afford to pay court debt, even when the reason for their debt has nothing to do with public safety when driving. In Montana, driving with a suspended license carries a penalty of between 2 days and 6 months of jail in addition to more fines and an extended period of suspension. H.B. 217 would relieve thousands of Montanans from this harmful practice.

Debt-based driver’s license suspensions are a poverty penalty that punish people solely because they are poor.  Yet, more than 40 states — including Montana — 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. Regardless of a person's ability to pay, debt-based driver’s license suspensions are bad public policy.

Driver’s license suspensions should be imposed for the limited purpose of keeping unsafe drivers off of the road, not as a debt-collection mechanism. Debt-based suspensions are at best ineffective, and at worst destructive to the purpose of collecting unpaid debt. When a state takes away a driver’s license due to inability to pay court debt, it can have devastating human costs. It also wastes taxpayer money and resources. Stripping low-income people of their driver's license makes it more difficult to earn a living, and by extension, more difficult to pay off their debt. Once a person’s driver’s license is suspended, they can no longer lawfully drive to and from work, school, job interviews, medical appointments, the grocery store, or religious services. With limited access to public transportation, driving is often the only realistic means of transportation, causing many people to drive with a suspended license out of necessity. People who drive with a suspended license risk additional fines and fees and even incarceration. People of color are particularly at risk of debt-based suspension and incarceration for driving under a suspended license. That’s both because of stark, race-based obstacles to equal economic justice and the over-policing communities of color. As a result, this practice entrenches low-income people into cycles of poverty, debt, and incarceration from which it is difficult to break free.

Montana has the chance to end this harmful practice. Montana State Representative Casey Knudsen (R-Malta) has introduced a bill (H.B. 217) to repeal the part of Montana law that permits driver’s licenses to be suspended for failure to pay court debt. The legislation has already generated support from a coalition of individuals and organizations across the ideological spectrum. If the bill passes, it would make Montana a leader in the national movement to end debt-based suspensions.

Under current Montana law, the Montana Department of Justice, Motor Vehicle Division, is required to suspend the driver’s license of any person who fails to pay court debt. Every year, the state suspends the driver's licenses of more than 10,000 low-income people who cannot afford to pay court debt, even when the reason for their debt has nothing to do with public safety when driving. In Montana, driving with a suspended license carries a penalty of between 2 days and 6 months of jail in addition to more fines and an extended period of suspension. H.B. 217 would relieve thousands of Montanans from this harmful practice.

The ACLU is glad to work with Montana lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and other advocates who are prioritizing this important issue. We hope that other state lawmakers will follow their lead.

Read more about our 2019 legislative work.

S.K. Rossi, Advocacy and Policy Director, ACLU of Montana andEmily Dindial, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU

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