The Montana Legislature has a tremendous opportunity to end suspending an individual’s driver’s license for conduct unrelated to dangerous driving. House Bill 217 filed by Republican Rep. Casey Knudsen would end Montana’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of individuals who fail to pay court debt. In 2018, the state suspended the driver's licenses of an estimated 14,000 people, including those who were too poor to pay their fines and fees. If someone owes a debt to a court and has not had any other infractions other than being unable to pay their fines and fees, then they should be able to discharge their obligation via other means, such as performing community service.
“In a state like Montana, access to a driver’s license is essential for people to get to work,” said 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.”
The Montana Department of Justice, Motor Vehicle Division, is required to suspend the driver’s license of an individual who fails to pay court fines and fees, even when they are unable to afford that debt. HB 217 would repeal the part of Montana law that permits driver’s licenses to be suspended for failure to pay one’s debt owed to a court.
Over the last few years, several states have undertaken the issue of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees, and examples of this trend can be found throughout the country. Last year both Maine and Michigan enacted legislation that prevented the suspension of a driver’s license if the individual is unable to pay their court debt. In addition, this year more states are considering changing their laws on driver’s license suspensions. Legislation introduced in Tennessee and New Jersey would limit the use of driver’s license suspensions in certain instances where the underlying offense does not involve dangerous driving.
When states take away driver’s licenses for an offense unrelated to dangerous driving, it does not enhance public safety. In fact, stripping individuals of their driver's license makes it more difficult to earn a living, and more difficult to pay off their debt. This is consistent with several principles outlined in the American Legislative Exchange Council model Resolution in Support of Limiting Driver’s License Suspensions to Violations that Involve Dangerous Driving.
As a practical matter, given the nature of Montana’s geography, the vast majority of Montanans drive to work. Therefore, many individuals may drive with a suspended license because they need to get to work or care for their family. As a result of these individuals driving with a suspended license, some ultimately end up spending time in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay court debt.
While ALEC and the American Civil Liberties Union are often at odds on numerous issues, we agree on this issue. In fact, the ACLU of Montana supports the bill. “Current law requiring driver’s license suspensions criminalizes poverty,” said S.K. 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.”
Overall, the issue of driver’s license suspensions will continue to gain traction as states are recognizing that driver’s license suspensions should be reserved for offenses related to dangerous driving. House Bill 217 is consistent with that principle and would relieve thousands of Montanans from having their driver’s license suspended and free up law enforcement budgets for more appropriate uses.