Protecting Rights of Drivers Who Are Poor: Montana

IMG_6706Every year Montana suspends the licenses of an estimated 10,000 Montana residents because they are unable to pay court debts, even though many are simply too poor to pay. Montana does not take the driver’s ability to pay into consideration before suspension, nor does it offer a community service option or a reasonable payment plan.

Montana has virtually no public transportation options, so the loss of a driver’s license in the state is particularly devastating. Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. This system traps people who are poor in an impossible cycle of poverty, and it’s bad public policy.

On August 31, 2017, Equal Justice Under Law — in partnership with local counsel Robert Farris-Olsen and Scott Peterson of Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola, PLLP — filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Montana for suspending driver’s licenses of people with safe driving records simply because they are too poor to pay their traffic tickets or court costs. Our lawsuit, DiFrancesco v. Bullock, alleges this scheme is fundamentally unfair and violates the Constitution.

Our Client

Michael DiFrancesco is a 22-year old who has never been charged with a moving traffic violation or any violation related to road safety, and yet, Montana prevents him from having a license. Why? Because he was too poor to pay a fine from a single civil infraction of possessing alcohol when he was underage. His court debts have now ballooned to over $4,000.

Without a license, it’s difficult for Michael to travel to his job as a construction worker, so he has experienced intermittent unemployment as well as periods of homelessness.

This lawsuit is the first step toward ending this discriminatory system.

If your license has been suspended because you cannot afford to pay a fine and you have a clean driving record, please contact admin@equaljusticeunderlaw.org with a description of your situation.

Read More About the Case

Read our complaint here: 1 – Complaint

For a link to our Press Release regarding filing, go here: Driving While Poor in Montana PR

Selected Media Coverage

(for additional media coverage, please contact our Communications Department at communications@equaljusticeunderlaw.org)

“Are We Punishing the Poor Hard Enough?” by Dan Brooks fro the Missoula Independent on September 14, 2017

“D.C. Civil Rights Group Sues Montana Over ‘Driver’s License Suspension Scheme” by Martin Kinston for the Missoula Current on September 1, 2017

“The Hazards of Driving While Poor” by Derek Brouwer for the Missoula Independent on September 7, 2017

“Lawsuit Alleges Montana Discriminates Against Its Poor” by Whitney Bermes  for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on September 2, 2017

“Lawsuit Alleges Montana Discriminates Against Drivers Too Poor to Pay Fines” by Angela Brandt for the Helena Independent Record on September 6, 2017

“Lawsuit Claims State is Unfair to Drivers Who Can’t Afford to Pay Fines” by Phil Drake for the Great Falls Tribune on September 1, 2017

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