A Bozeman man is leading a class action lawsuit against the State of Montana and the Montana Department of Motor Vehicles, alleging an unfair system where poor people are fined and caught in a never-ending cycle of debt that prevents them from ever having a valid drivers license.
According to the complaint recently filed by Michael DiFrancesco, the state is guilty of operating a wealth-based drivers license suspensionion scheme that "traps some of the state's poorest residents in a cycle of poverty."
The complaint is filed in U.S. District Court in Butte. The defendants, which include Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Montana) and Attorney General Tim Fox (R-Montana), have yet to respond to the complaint.
DiFrancesco, 22, alleges that people who cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines and/or restitution automatically have their licenses suspended or revoked.
"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," states the complaint.
The complaint alleges that, although the system is designed to coerce drivers to pay the fines, those who are too poor to pay are unfairly penalized as a result.
"No incentive or punishment will increase the likelihood of a person paying a debt if he or she does not have the money," states the complaint.
DiFrancesco claims that he himself is the victim of this alleged scheme, stating in his complaint that he is unable to obtain a job due to his inability to pay fines and have his license restored.
The complaint alleges that there are no real alternative methods of transportation in many parts of Montana that could allow a person with a suspended license to reach his or her place of employment.
According to the complaint, DiFrancesco has recently experienced homelessness as a result of a fine he was assessed at the age of 14.
DiFrancesco claims that he was fined $185 for "minor in possession." Since he first received the fine, DiFrancesco claims his court costs have ballooned to over $4,000, which is beyond his ability to pay.
The complaint describes a catch-22, where DiFrancesco is unable to pay the court fines because he is unemployed, but he cannot become employed without a drivers license.
DiFrancesco has been cited multiple times for driving without a license because, he claims, he has attempted to drive to his place of employment and earn money.
DiFrancesco has never been charged with a moving traffic violation or any violation related to road safety, according to the complaint.
"Because they cannot pay fines, poor drivers are over-represented in the pool of suspended drivers when compared to the general population of licensed drivers," alleges DiFrancesco. "In many cases, Montana's wealth-based suspens10n scheme forces suspended drivers to choose between driving illegally and losing their jobs."
DiFrancesco noted that he could pay for a taxi but that cost would be significant over time.
The class action suit represents the interests of 10,000 Montanans who have had their license suspended for an inability to pay court fines, according to the complaint.
DiFrancesco is asking for the DMV to change its methods, allowing him to have his license reinstated without paying off his court debts or a reinstatement fee.