Legislation Introduce in Montana to Repeal the Driver’s License Suspension Program


January 25, 2019

Good hard working people are being forced into a modern-day debtors’ 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.
— Representative Casey Knudsen (R-Malta)

Montana currently has a law on the books that allows the courts to suspend an individual’s driver’s license indefinitely for any unpaid court debts.

Over 19,000 Montanans are faced with an impossible choice: drive — and risk being charged with driving while suspended, which itself can lead to additional costs, fines, and periods of incarceration — or refrain from driving and lose their job and access to medical care.

On August 31st, 2017, Equal Justice Under Law — in partnership with Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola, PLLP — filed a class action lawsuit against Steve Bullock, the Governor of Montana, and the Montana DMV. The complaint accused Montana of running a wealth-based driver's license suspension scheme that traps some of the state's poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.  By taking away the right to drive solely because someone is unable to pay court debt, Montana is essentially criminalizing poverty.

While the case steadily moves through the courts, with class certification hearings in October 2018 and January 2019, Equal Justice Under Law continues to pursue a ruling that punishing people solely for being poor is unconstitutional. However, the biggest news so far in Montana isn’t from the courts, but rather the legislature.

On January 9th, 2019 a bill, co-sponsored by the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity, was introduced in the Montana Legislature by Representative Casey Knudsen (R-Malta), which would end the state’s driver’s license suspension scheme. Not only would the bill end the practice of suspending licenses of those too poor to pay court debt, but it would also reinstate the license for the thousands of Montanans who currently can’t drive.

Between the DiFrancesco v. Bullock case being argued in court, and the Knudsen proposed legislation, we have high hopes that the fight to end wealth-based driver’s license suspensions in Montana will soon be won. We are excited about this two-pronged approach to justice and look forward to the day when all Montanans are treated equally under the law.

The current law undermines the fairness and integrity of our legal system. It is also unconstitutional. Criminalizing poor people and balancing budgets on the backs of the poor is inherently unfair and it undermines the fairness and legitimacy of our legal system.
— Proposed legislation