HELENA — Montana courts can no longer suspend your driver’s license solely because you haven’t paid a fine or court costs — and, if they did in the past, you can now get the license reinstated.
Supporters of the new law say it will help thousands of mostly low-income Montanans keep their license and, in many cases, their job, which they can reach only by vehicle.
“Ninety percent of Montanans use a car to get to their job,” says David Herbst of Americans for Prosperity-Montana, a free-market group. “If we get in the way of that, if the government keeps them from getting that job, that’s their avenue to bettering their life, it’s an incentive for people not to improve their lives.”
They also say that, despite objections from some judges, the law is not that much of a change from the old law that allowed suspension of licenses for non-payment of fines.
“It just says, OK, if you’re going to suspend somebody’s license, you actually have to send out a notice-to-appear — then, if they fail to appear, (the judge) can suspend the license,” says Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, the law’s main sponsor. “So, it’s basically just forcing them to send out one more letter.”
The bill making the change almost died in the state Senate, but was revived on a 26-24 vote in April and eventually passed. Gov. Steve Bullock signed it into law May 7.
Last year, 25,500 Montanans had their driver’s license suspended by a court. It’s not precisely known how many of those were only for non-payment of fines, or how many are eligible for reinstatement under the new law.
Judges can still suspend a driver’s license for things like drunk driving, failure to appear in court or failure to complete non-monetary requirements of a sentence, like community service.
But they can’t suspend a license only because someone hasn’t paid a fine — and if someone asks to reinstate a license previously suspended for non-payment, judges must grant that request.
Anne Peterson, the judge for Helena Municipal court, told MTN News that she has reinstated about a dozen licenses since the law took effect.
However, she said she still requires the applicant to appear in court and explain why they haven’t paid, and to set up a repayment plan.
“What I’m really looking for is that communication — what’s going on, how much can you afford to pay, what is that going to look like, and how can we get some consistency to get this sentence complete,” she said.
Peterson said she thought the ability to suspend a license for non-payment of fines was “a useful tool” for judges, and that now, the court may send a fine to a collection agency or ask the state Revenue Department to get involved.
She noted that offenders may also owe restitution, in addition to an unpaid fine.
“There are a lot of people in this community who are owed restitution, for car accidents, thefts, criminal mischief, damage to their property,” Peterson said. “The court just wants to make sure they’re able to be made whole as well.”
Knudsen said his bill is a way to “allow people to go about their lives with a little bit less government interference,” and that many people who had licenses suspended were the victim of circumstance, rather than any intent on their part.
-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News