DiFrancesco v. Bullock


Every year, Montana suspends the license of an estimated 10,000 drivers because they are unable to pay court debts. The automatic suspensions are designed to coerce payment -- but this practice can never accomplish its intended goal. No punishment can increase the likelihood that a person will pay a debt that he or she is unable to pay. 

Montana, like many other states, suspends the driver's license of any person who fails to pay any court-ordered fine, cost, or restitution (including minor traffic tickets) regardless of the reason for nonpayment. That is, the state suspends the licenses even of people who are too poor to pay.

Plaintiff Michael DiFrancesco is a 22-year-old who has recently experienced homelessness. He has never been charged with a moving traffic violation. His troubles began when he was fined $185 for a civil infraction he committed when he was only 14 years old. Since then, his court debt has ballooned to nearly $4,000 due solely to his inability to drive legally. Mr. DiFrancesco is a construction worker and is unable to work consistently without a driver's license.

We are challenging this practice on the grounds that it violates Equal Protection and Due Process rights as well as the fundamental right to intrastate travel. The law is counterproductive -- attempting to coerce payment by taking away people's ability to drive, thereby impeding their ability to work and earn money -- and therefore fails rational basis review. The law also punishes people simply for being poor, a violation of their substantive due process rights. Automatic suspension also deprives impoverished drivers of a protected property interest, their driver's licenses, without an ability-to-pay hearing, a violation of their procedural due process rights.


On February 16, 2018, Judge Sam Haddon of the District of Montana denied Defendants' motion to dismiss pending a ruling on class certification.

Almost every week, I have a heartbreaking conversation with a client who is doing everything he or she can to be a lawabiding, working member of the community, but the government has punished he or she in a way that makes that impossible. This is especially true for all but a handful of Montanans who don’t have chauffeurs or affordable and reliable public transit nearby that can get them to where they need to be in order to live, work, and comply with a court’s orders.
— Buddy Rutzke, Montana Public Defender
 

case details


The Complaint

Our Motion to Certify Class

Status: Class certification motion pending

Date Filed: 08/31/17

Plaintiffs: Michael DiFrancesco, on behalf of proposed class

Defendants:Tim Fox, Montana's Attorney General; Sarah Garcia, MVD Administrator; Michele Snowberger, Bureau Chief of Driver Services Bureau

Jurisdiction: The U.S. District Court for the District of Montana Butte Division

Partners: Robert Farris-Olsen and Scott Peterson ofMorrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola, PLLP

 

IMPACT


This lawsuit seeks to put a stop to unlawful suspensions and restore the licenses of tens of thousands of Montana drivers