The hazards of driving while poor 

Maybe you were at a house party busted by the cops. Maybe they caught you taking a pull outside the high school football game. Either way, you've been cited for being a minor in possession, and the city judge sentences you to take a substance abuse class, the cost of which you'll cover, and pay a $185 fine. Your parents ground you, you pay your fine and fees—let's face it, your parents probably pay it—and you put your brush with teenage mischief behind you.

But what if you can't afford to pay?

Michael DiFrancesco, of Bozeman, is still finding out—eight years, $4,000 and five months in jail later. Cited for MIP at age 14, DiFrancesco's inability to pay those penalties trapped him in a cycle of poverty that's left him jobless and without stable housing as an adult.

How? The trap, his attorneys say, is the state's practice of suspending driving privileges for defendants who don't pay court debts. Designed as a way to force people to pay up, Montana's system is also punishing the poor in unconstitutional ways, a new class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Butte on DiFrancesco's behalf alleges.

"Without driver's licenses, people already facing the harsh realities of owing court debt while living in poverty face additional hurdles of being unable to drive to and from work, get their children to daycare, keep medical appointments, and care for their family members," the complaint filed by Washington, D.C., civil rights firm Equal Justice Under Law states.

DiFrancesco's suspension prevented him from obtaining a learner's permit or license when he turned 18. But as a construction worker, he, like most Montanans, needed to drive to job sites. So he did, racking up five charges for driving without a license in the process. Each charge came with more fines, mandatory jail time and penalties that have put legal driving out of reach for years.

The suit alleges that by suspending his driving privileges, the state put DiFrancesco and others like him in an "impossible situation" that, in turn, made the court less likely to recover fines and fees.

The new Missoula jail diversion plan identifies license suspension as one of several areas in which reform could help reduce jail overcrowding. Report author and state Sen. Cynthia Wolken says the practice often doesn't improve public safety or save the state money, since jailing people in DiFrancesco's situation often costs more than the debt they owe.

"It's just really counterproductive," she says.

State lawmakers last spring did eliminate mandatory jail time for driving without a license, but Wolken says local municipal and justice courts need to start tracking how many of their defendants lose their licenses or face arrest warrants because they're unable to pay fines. In its filing, Equal Justice Under Law estimated that about half of the 19,000 Montanans who had their licenses suspended in 2016 couldn't afford to pay their fines.

Even clearing a court debt isn't enough to get back driving privileges once they've been suspended. That costs another $100 reinstatement fee.

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