A legal advocacy organization that represents low-income people says nearly every state has a law that requires the suspension of a driver’s license for nonpayment of court costs and fines. Legal challenges have been filed in 5 states challenging such laws, including in Montana.
Legal Aid Justice Center Attorney Mario Salas is one of the report’s principal authors. He says these laws punish people for being poor. Salas adds many states, including Montana, require judges to suspend a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay off their court debts.
"What we’re arguing is that there is a role for punishment in criminal manners and traffic matters," he says. "But where the Constitution draws a line is when people suffer punishment merely because of their poverty. And that’s what’s going on in states like VA and states like MT where there are no built in checks along the process to determine whether a person has the ability to pay before their license is suspended."
Salas says these laws trap low-income individuals in a vicious cycle: Individuals lose their driver’s license because they can’t pay their court fines and fees then they have to make a decision, not drive and possibly lose their job which makes it even more difficult to pay their court fines and fees or drive and risk getting caught driving on a suspended license and face jail time and additional fines and fees.
"This is part of a larger pattern, a larger framework of policies and systems that keep low income people on the margins, that maintain contact with the criminal justice system far longer than their wealthier counterparts," Salas says.
This is one of the arguments attorneys present in a lawsuit that was filed September 1, 2017 in U.S. District Court in Butte on behalf of a Bozeman man. The class action lawsuit accuses Montana of running a “wealth-based driver’s license suspension scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in the cycle of poverty.”
The lawsuit names as defendants the governor, the state attorney general, the administrator of the Montana Vehicle Division and the bureau chief of the Driver Services Bureau.
Similar legal challenges have also been filed in California, Tennessee, Michigan, and Virginia.