In 2019, the Montana legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock should pass legislation to end the practice of suspending the driver’s license of anyone unable to expeditiously pay court debts.
The legislation is necessary because thousands of Montanans lose their driver’s license every year, not because they pose a threat to public safety, but simply because they lack the means to quickly pay off their debt.
It’s an unnecessarily punitive law that disproportionately hurts low-income Montanans who have little to no savings. In effect it creates a two-tiered justice system in our state, where your income determines the severity of your punishment.
The law is also counterproductive because it creates a barrier to work necessary to generate income to pay the fines and fees imposed. In a rural state like Montana, where public transportation options are limited, driving is essential to get around, including getting to work. Consequently, many Montanans affected by the law end up driving with a suspended license, and so risk accruing additional fines and penalties if caught.
When this happens, a vicious cycle of poverty is perpetuated. The bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Knudsen (R-Malta), correctly sums up this predicament: “Good hardworking people are being forced into a modern-day debtors prison.”
Defenders of the status quo contend that ending this practice will mean greenlighting dangerous drivers back onto the road, including those convicted of driving under the influence. But this is simply not accurate. If enacted, HB 217 would ensure that offenders convicted of dangerous driving violations would still lose their driver’s licenses and have to pay fines associated with the crime. The only difference is that, under Rep. Knudsen’s bill, the state could no longer extend a driver’s license suspension simply because the offender lacks the means to quickly pay off the debt.
The proposal is winning support from groups across the ideological spectrum, including the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which recently passed a resolution in support of limiting driver’s license suspensions to violations involving dangerous driving.
Outside of Montana, other states are taking action. Last year, Maine and Michigan enacted legislation addressing this issue. And this year, legislatures in Tennessee, New Jersey and Virginia are expected to bring up bills that would limit the use of driver’s license suspensions. They are doing this because they realize that the suspension of a driver’s license, for an offense unrelated to dangerous driving, does not enhance public safety, but instead makes it more difficult for an offender to earn a living and pay off their debt.
Instead of taking away a driver’s license, one possible alternative could include performing community service or figuring out a way to pay the court debt over time. It is important to remember that the legislation is not about debt forgiveness; it’s about not taking someone’s driver’s license for failure to quickly pay their debt.
The time has come to put to an end Montana’s ineffective, counterproductive and unjust practice of suspending the driver’s license of someone unable to quickly pay off their debt. Helena lawmakers should act without delay.
David Herbst is Montana state director at Americans for Prosperity.