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Local judges oppose Montana bill to prohibit driver-license suspension for non-payment

Posted: 8:01 PM, Feb 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-08 22:01:35-05

HELENA – A coalition of groups representing businesses, individual rights and low-income Montanans spoke in favor Friday of a bill to prohibit suspension of someone’s driver’s license for non-payment of fines.

But local judges and their lobbyists argued against House Bill 217, saying it takes away what’s often a last-resort tool to collect fines from repeat traffic offenders.

“We’re not pushing people down in a hole,” said Greg Mohr of the Montana Magistrates Association. “They’re the ones that have made the decision to dig this (hole) and we’re finally at the end of the line to collect all of this.”

HB217, sponsored by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, would bar judges from suspending a driver’s license for non-payment of fines or restitution. It also would allow those who’ve had their license suspended for non-payment to petition a court to get it reinstated.

Knudsen told the House Judiciary Committee that if someone loses their driver’s license, they may then lose their job, because they can’t drive to get to work.

“It seems like common sense, if you want somebody to pay their bills, you won’t take away their ability to get to work,” he said.

At Friday’s hearing, the bill had support from home builders and an auto-body shop owner, who said they need workers who can drive to job sites; the American Civil Liberties Union-Montana; low-income advocacy groups; and Americans for Prosperity-Montana, a free-market group.

David Herbst, state director for Americans for Prosperity, cited several studies that have shown having a driver’s license and a car are significant factors in getting ahead financially.

“If you’re a fiscal conservative … what we want to do is lower the barriers to people so they can climb that (economic) ladder,” he said. “A car is one of those critical ways to do that.”

Last year, about 14,000 Montanans had their driver’s license suspended, according to figures presented Friday – and some 21,500 had them reinstated.

Several county judges appeared before the committee Friday to oppose HB217.

They said suspending someone’s license for non-payment of fines is usually a last resort, and can’t be done until the offenders are given a series of notices. They also questioned what effect the bill might have on the number of Montanans who drive without insurance – already a serious problem, they said.

Kelly Mantooth, a city and county judge in Lewistown, said a suspended license can sometimes get the offender’s attention and force him or her to come into court, where a judge can work with them to solve the problem.

“We, as the judges, we work with people,” he said. “We’re not just here to sentence people and fine them. We’re also here to rehabilitate people.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News