Social Justice: Driver's License Suspensions Target the Poorest Montanans

Often times, our laws - either intentionally or unintentionally - target our poorest citizens exacerbating their economic plight. One example of this is the recent lawsuit Scott Peterson and I filed with the non-profit group Equal Justice Under the Law.  

The lawsuit tells the story of Michael DiFrancesco, who is a 22-year old. He has never been charged with a moving traffic violation, or any violation related to road safety, yet State law prevents him from obtaining a driver's license. It all started when he was cited in 2008 for an MIP and fined $185 and ordered to attend a community based substance abuse program. Mr. DiFrancesco could no afford his fine or for the course. So in January 2009, his driver's license was suspended. He was never given a hearing on his ability to pay the fine or for the course. 

In order for Mr. DiFrancesco to get his license back, he was required to pay the fine, complete the course, and pay a reinstatement fee. He of course could not afford these costs. As a result, he has never been able to obtain a driver's license. He was ultimately able to pay his original fine, and for the program, but in the meantime he was cited for driving without a valid license, racking up more debt. Debt he couldn't pay. He was also declared a Habitual Traffic Offender and had his license revoked for a period of three years.  

Mr. DiFrancesco's inability to get his license is due solely to his poverty. His license was suspended because he couldn't pay a fine; he was convicted of driving with a valid license because he had to drive to work; and he can't get his license back now because he owes $4,000 in unpaid fines. 

Unfortunately, Mr. DiFrancesco's situation is not unique. In my 4 years as contract public defender, I've seen this scenario numerous times. Sometimes the stories are even worse. For example, if a person is arrested while driving with a suspended license, and convicted of driving with a suspended license, the license is suspended for another year. This creates a cycle where a person can never get their license back, and extends the cycle of poverty. 

Oftentimes, it seems our legislature forgets how some of our laws affect our poorest citizens, and how by making small changes we can have significant economic impacts. With my experience, I will fight to make sure that the State does not unfairly target our poorest citizens.