Lawmakers, advocacy groups agree: suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt improperly punishes individuals and is counterproductive.
A bill (HB 217) filed by Rep. Casey Knudsen on Wednesday would end Montana’s harmful and ineffective practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay court debt. Every year, the state suspends the driver's licenses of an estimated 10,000 people who have failed to pay court-ordered fines and fees, even if they are too poor to pay.
“In a state like Montana, access to a driver’s license is essential for people to get to work,” said said Rep. Knudsen. “Driver’s license suspensions should be imposed for the purpose of keeping unsafe drivers off of the road, not punishing people because they are poor. It’s not a smart practice, and it ought to be changed,”
Under current Montana law (MCA §61-5-214), the Montana Department of Justice, Motor Vehicle Division, is required to suspend the driver’s license of people who fail to pay court debt, even when they are unable to afford that debt. LC0606 would repeal the part of Montana law that permits driver’s licenses to be suspended for failure to pay court debt.
Advocacy groups from across the ideological spectrum support the bill.
The ACLU of Montana supports the bill. “Current law requiring driver’s license suspensions criminalizes poverty, said SK Rossi, Advocacy and Policy Director for the ACLU of Montana. “Many people with low incomes work full time jobs. Suspending licenses for inability to pay court debt traps them in vicious and often inescapable cycles of poverty and entanglement with the criminal justice system. It’s a cruel and counterproductive policy.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) praised Rep. Knudsen. “When the state takes away a driver’s license for an offense unrelated to dangerous driving, it does not enhance public safety,” said Ronald Lampard of ALEC. “Stripping individuals of their driver's license makes it more difficult to earn a living, and more difficult to pay off their debt. Montana should take the sensible action of eliminating debt-based driver’s license suspensions.” The bill is consistent with several principles outlined in the ALEC model Resolution in Support of Limiting Driver’s License Suspensions to Violations that Involve Dangerous Driving.
Most of Montana lacks adequate public transportation. Less than one percent of Montanans use public transportation to get to work. Many drivers are essentially forced to drive with a suspended license because they need to get to work or care for their family. In Montana, driving with a suspended license carries a penalty of between 2 and 6 days in jail, plus fines and fees and a longer period of suspension. Some Montanans end up spending time in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to pay court debt.
As part of its efforts to reform Montana’s criminal justice system, Americans for Prosperity-MT supports the bill. “The state should spend its limited resources on enforcing laws that keep our communities safe instead of criminalizing those too poor to pay off their court debt,” said David Herbst, State Director for Americans for Prosperity - Montana.
LC0606 would relieve thousands of Montanans from the harm of driver’s license suspensions and free up law enforcement budgets for more appropriate use.
Other groups that support this bill include Montana Women Vote and the Montana Building Industry Association.
For more information on this bill, see ACLU of Montana factsheet.