A lawsuit filed in Butte federal court alleges Montana is discriminating against people who can't afford to pay court debts by suspending their driver's license as punishment.
The suit alleges the state is "running a wealth-based driver's license suspension scheme that traps some of the state's poorest residents in a cycle of poverty." It says an estimated 10,000 Montana residents have their licenses suspended annually due to failure to pay court debts, and it calls this process unconstitutional and fundamentally wrong.
The class action suit is filed on behalf of a 22-year-old Bozeman man, who his attorneys say is caught in a cycle of debt due to his license suspension. They claim Montana is taking the licenses of residents with safe driving records who are too poor to pay their tickets and court costs. A national civil rights non-profit, Equal Justice Under Law, filed the suit in partnership with Helena lawyers Robert Farris-Olsen and Scott Peterson.
"Montana has trapped Plaintiff Michael Difrancesco in an inescapable cycle of poverty by suspending his license, thereby severely limiting his job opportunities," the suit states.
Those named in the suit include Gov. Steve Bullock and state Attorney General Tim Fox. The state has yet to respond to the complaint filed last week.
Difrancesco's attorneys say his legal issues stem from a $185 ticket for minor in possession of alcohol, which he couldn't afford to pay when he was 14 years old. Due to the outstanding fines, he could not earn a driver's license. Since then, his court costs have risen to nearly $4,000 for being caught driving without a license.
His lack of a license has caused Difrancesco to become homeless and unemployed, the suit says. He has been convicted of driving without a license five times in the last three years. His inability to drive legally stems solely from his poverty, his attorneys say.
"Especially in a state like Montana with few public transportation options, losing a license is devastating. Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. This system traps people who are poor in an impossible cycle of poverty. It needs to end," Phil Telfeyan, lead attorney and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, said in a press release.
Those who filed the suit say it is the first step toward ending what they consider a discriminatory system.