In Montana, the Practice of Suspending People’s Licenses for Outstanding Court Debt Could Soon Be Over

In more than 40 states across the country, state governments suspend people’s driver’s licenses for outstanding court debts, a practice that disproportionately harms low-income people. But if a Republican legislator has his way, this destructive and counterproductive policy may soon be null and void in Montana.

On Jan. 9, Rep. Casey Knudsen (R-Malta) introduced a bill to repeal the part of Montana law that permits driver’s licenses to be suspended for failure to pay court debt.

Under current Montana law, the Motor Vehicle Division of the Montana Department of Justice 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, even when the reason for their debt has nothing to do with public safety violations when driving. Knudsen’s bill would relieve thousands of Montanans from this harmful practice.

Debt-based driver’s license suspensions are another example of a poverty penalty, such as cash bail, that punish people based on what’s in their bank account rather than whether they’re a legitimate threat to public safety. A consensus, however, 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.

Once a person’s driver’s license is suspended, they can no longer lawfully drive to and from work, making it much harder to pay off their debt. And it also makes it much harder to get to school, job interviews, medical appointments, the grocery store, or religious services. With limited access to public transportation in Montana, driving is often the only realistic means of transportation, causing many people to drive with a suspended license out of necessity. This carries significant risk. Driving with a suspended license carries a penalty of between 2 days and 6 months of jail time in addition to more fines and an extended period of suspension.

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.

Legislators are expected to vote on Knudsen’s bill any day now. When they do, lawmakers should overwhelmingly vote to rid Montana of this law, which harms the poor and does nothing to promote public safety on the state’s roadways.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

There are poor people in Montana ?

Anonymous

Are you serious? Yes, there's poor people everywhere thanks to terrible legislation to only benefit the few.

Anonymous

Montana is a poor rural state. Was this a serious question or sarcasm?

Anonymous

It is a good and amazing thing that a Republican is trying to correct a wrong that some ignorance by previous Montana Legislators put and made as law, destructive rules to hurt common everyday hard working voters just because the voter is poor. Those STUPID and IGNORANT laws made people poorer in every state where Republicans drafted this kind of legislation..

Anonymous

Not just republicans. Democrats are responsible for a lot of this nonsense as well. Traffic camera issued speeding tickets/moving violations, fines for driving without insurance (which just makes the people who can't afford insurance even poorer) and on and on. Illinois, which is democrat controlled and has been for years, is a great example of fines disproportionately hitting the poor.

Ari

That is a photo of the Illinois Secretary of State Central Chicago Facility. Interesting.

Russ

There has to be some incentive for people to take care their fines. Jails across the country are too full to incarcerate over petty misdemeanors. So if you can’t put them away and you can’t make them pay their fines what else is there besides suspending the PRIVILAGE to operate a motor vehicle?

Anonymous

Well, let's carry that to its logical conclusion.

Bill has five kids, works two jobs, has no money to pay fines after providing food and shelter to his family. Then we take Bill's license away. Now Bill can't get to his jobs because they are not on a bus route and Bill can not drive. So Bill is fired. Now Bill has now income.. Who pays for Bill's five kids? Yep. The tax payers do. So, what's the greater evil, Bill having an unpaid fine or Bill's entire family being on public assistance indefinitely?

Anonymous

Many people end up in jail because they can't afford to pay for an obscenely expensive traffic ticket. A few years ago I found out my license had been suspended over failure to pay a red light camera ticket that I never received. By the time I paid all the fines and fees, it cost me nearly $600 to get my drivers license reinstated. I'm a very cautious and responsible driver. Had I known I was issued a ticket I would have contested it because I don't run red lights, but I was not allowed to contest the ticket. Even if I had run a red light, $600 is an excessive amount of money to pay for a fine. It took me a while to get the money and reinstate my license. I had to drive to work on a suspended license for a while, which made me a nervous wreck because I knew if I got stopped I'd go to jail. But I had no choice- I had to go to work and there is no public transportation where I live. Traffic fines are supposed to be a deterrent to unsafe driving, not a financial burden that turns someone's world upside down. The average ticket for a minor traffic offense is what? $100-150? For someone working full-time at minimum wage, that's about half of their weekly paycheck after taxes. Is that fair? Put yourself in their shoes. I don't know how much money you make, but how would you feel if you received a ticket equal to half your weekly paycheck for driving 10 mph over the speed limit? Maybe a solution would be to base fines on what a person can reasonably pay.

Anonymous

I believe the State also suspends licenses for nonpayment of child support. While there needs to be enforcement of child support payment, it is illogical to take someone's license away for the same reasons stated above

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