Montana lawmakers are considering a change to when drivers licenses can be suspended. Critics of current law say taking away some people’s ability to drive criminalizes poverty.
The bill draft would take away the ability of a judge to suspend someone’s license if they fail to pay court fines, costs or restitution.
Republican Casey Knudsen from Malta, the bill’s sponsor, calls the current practice, “morally inexcusable.”
“Good hard working people are being forced into a modern-day debtors prison through the suspension of their driver’s license and the vicious cycle that revolves between ever-increasing fines and the inability to get to work to pay them off.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Prosperity, groups often at ideological odds, are also both backing the bill.
“What this means for Montanans is if you walk into a court with a $40 speeding ticket and you walk out with a $200 bill because of the extra fines, fees and other surcharges they tack onto it, and a few months down the line you’re unable to make ends meet, you won’t get your license revoked because you can’t pay those fees,” says SK Rossi with the ACLU.
Supporters of the change say 10,000 driver’s licenses are suspended a year in Montana because people can't pay fines.
According to the Montana Department of Justice Motor Vehicle Division, more than 14,000 suspensions were placed on driver’s licenses in 2018, including but not limited to the failure to pay fines, costs or restitution.
An official with MVD also noted that drivers may have multiple suspensions on their record.
The State of Montana is currently defending its practice of taking away the driver’s license of people who don’t pay court debt in federal court.
A lawsuit filed in 2017 by a Bozeman man alleges the state is “running a wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.”
The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the proposed legislation because of the ongoing lawsuit.