Too poor to pay: Bill forbids driver’s license suspension for failing to pay court debt

S.K. Rossi, advocacy and policy director for the ACLU of Montana, speaks at a press conference at the Montana Capitol Wednesday in support of a bill that would stop the state from suspending the driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay their court debts. (Tim Pierce/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) A bill introduced in the Montana Legislature would stop Montana courts from suspending the licenses of drivers who fail to pay their court debt.

Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, held a joint press conference on Wednesday about the bill with S.K. Rossi, advocacy and policy director with the ACLU of Montana, and David Herbst, state director of Americans for Prosperity.

Knudsen said the state suspends more than 10,000 driver’s licenses from Montanans who he says are too poor to pay their fines. He also said with so much of Montana being rural, a revoked license removes many Montanans’ ability to work. The bill would not only stop the court from suspending future licenses, but return licenses to drivers already in that predicament.

“Good, hardworking people are being forced into a modern-day debtors’ prison through the suspension of their driver’s license. That’s a situation I find morally inexcusable,” Knudsen said.

Knudsen referred to the coalition backing the measure as “strange,” but said the cooperation shows the necessity for the change.

Herbst says he doesn’t always agree with the ACLU, but is proud to partner for the bill.

“When it comes to removing barriers to opportunity for individuals who want to pay their fines, there is no disagreement,” Herbst said.

The bill is currently in draft form and is expected to reach committee soon.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.