A lawmaker plans to bring a bill that would do away with the practice of suspending driver's licenses as punishment for unpaid court fees.
In Montana, 10,000 people have their driver's licenses suspended annually over unpaid court debt, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.
“Good, hard-working people are being forced into a modern-day debtor’s 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,” said Rep. Casey Knudsen, a Republican from Malta, who will carry the bill.
Knudsen held a joint press conference Wednesday with the ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity, two groups that don't often work together.
“The ACLU of Montana and AFP of Montana certainly don’t agree on every issue,” said David Herbst, state director of AFP. “But when it comes to removing barriers to opportunity for individuals who want to pay their fines that they owe and be productive members of society, there is no disagreement.”
S.K. Rossi, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU, said the legislation would remove a punitive part of the justice system.
“What this means for Montanans is that being in debt to the government won’t take away your license and your ability to continue working and get to school and support your family,” Rossi said. “And this means that if you can’t pay the unending list of fines, fees and costs that come with even the smallest of infractions, the court will have to summon you and ask you why.”
The bill contains a retroactive clause that would allow residents who have already had their licenses suspended for unpaid fees to petition courts to get their licenses back. This clause, Rossi said, would alleviate congestion in overloaded detention centers and court dockets.
When asked if the bill could send the wrong message to Montanans who have broken the law, Knudsen countered that his legislation helps “the right people.”
“This is fixing a problem,” Knudsen said. “With how rural Montana is, we can’t be taking away people’s ability to get to work if they want to work, when they want to work.”
There is an ongoing federal case about the issue, filed in Butte in 2017 on behalf of Bozeman resident Michael DiFrancesco.
In the 2017 filing, DiFrancesco’s attorneys claimed the then-22-year-old saw a $185 infraction incurred at the age of 14 snowball into $4,000 in court debt by the time of the case’s filing as a result of multiple convictions for driving without a license. DiFrancesco’s inability to pay his original fine, for minor in possession, left him ineligible to obtain a driver’s license.
Lack of a valid license, the case states, led to DiFrancesco’s unemployment and homelessness. In addition to Gov. Steve Bullock, state Attorney General Tim Fox, Driver Services Bureau chief Michele Snowberger and administrator Sarah Garcia of the state Motor Vehicle Division are named as defendants.
“Our criminal justice system should keep our communities safe,” Herbst said. “It should rehabilitate people and recognize the potential in every person to transform their lives and to contribute to society. Unfortunately, our criminal justice policies leave us far from that ideal.”
In addition to criminalizing poverty and targeting minorities and the poor, Herbst said “little evidence” exists that the current law poses an effective way to collect on outstanding debts.
Knudsen’s bill is under legal review as of Wednesday and will be introduced soon.
Notably, one of DiFrancesco’s attorneys named in the case is Rep. Rob Farris-Olsen, a Democrat from Helena, still a city commissioner at the time of the case’s filing.