HELENA – On a bipartisan vote, the Montana House Thursday endorsed a bill that would prohibit judges from suspending someone’s driver’s license for non-payment of court fines or costs.
“You talk about why people don’t like government or reasons why people don’t trust the courts, it’s because of stuff like this,” said Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, who supported the bill. “You get into a random situation … and all of a sudden you can’t drive to work? That doesn’t make any sense.”
The House voted 71-28 for House Bill 217, setting up a final vote on Friday before the measure advances to the Senate. Thirty-nine Democrats and 32 Republicans voted for the bill; all but two of the “no” votes came from Republicans.
HB217, sponsored by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, says a judge cannot suspend a driver’s license only for nonpayment of a fine or court costs. Licenses could still be suspended for offenses related to driving.
Opponents of the bill said it’s taking away one of the few tools that lower courts have to enforce payments of fines, when other avenues have failed.
Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said without this power, courts will have to hire collection agencies or cite people for contempt of court.
“This is not good public policy,” he said. “Right now, the courts do not willy-nilly suspend people’s driver’s licenses. There is a very deliberate process by which that takes place, giving those people that don’t have the means to immediately make payments to make reasonable accommodations with the court.”
But those in favor of the bill said the power to revoke someone’s driver’s license is a power that no other bill-collector uses, or has, including the Internal Revenue Service or private debt collectors.
“There is no other creditor that has this opportunity with this big sledgehammer,” said Rep. Terry Moore, R-Billings. “If we need to assist our judicial system to have some other mechanisms available besides this draconian measure, then we ought to approach and address that.”
The bill also allows those who’ve had their licenses suspended for non-payment of fines to petition the court to reinstate their driver’s license.
At a hearing last month, the bill had support from the American Civil Liberties Union-Montana, low-income advocacy groups, and Americans for Prosperity-Montana, a free-market group.
Last year, about 14,000 Montanans had their driver’s licenses suspended, according to figures presented Friday – and some 21,500 had them reinstated.