City of Billings v. Gonzales – Case Brief Summary (Montana)

In City of Billings v. Gonzales, 2006 MT 24, 331 Mont. 71, 128 P.3d 1014, 1016 (Mont. 2006), the Supreme Court of Montana reached a similar conclusion in interpreting its statutory scheme, which, like Maryland's, grants the privilege to drive only to those who have been issued a driver's license or otherwise qualify for a statutory exemption.

A separate provision prohibits driving "when the person's privilege to do so is suspended or revoked."

The Montana court agreed with five drivers that they could not be charged under this law, because they had never been licensed:

The distinction throughout Title 61 between "license" or "driving privilege" . . . demonstrates that individuals lawfully can drive in Montana either by obtaining a driver's license pursuant to § 61-5-102, MCA, or by establishing that they have a privilege to drive without a license pursuant to § 61-5-104, MCA.

The plain language of § 61-5-212, MCA, requires that a person possess a privilege to drive before that privilege can be suspended or revoked. We have determined that the privilege to drive must be granted by law. Therefore, absent a license or privilege to drive without a license pursuant to § 61-5-104, MCA, the State cannot convict a person under § 61-5-212, MCA, with driving while license suspended or revoked. Adopting the State's position would require this Court to enlarge the phrase "suspended or revoked" of § 61-5-212, MCA, to include a driving privilege never granted. It is not the role of this Court to insert what has been omitted when applying statutes. Id. at 1016-17.

The Montana Supreme Court recognized that the State's "recourse when dealing with unlicensed drivers" is to charge them "with driving without a license," even if that violation carries a slightly lesser penalty than the one for driving on a revoked or suspended license. See id. at 1017.

Thus, "a reasonable and sensible interpretation of the relevant statutory scheme leads us to conclude that a person who does not have a privilege to drive, either through a driver's license or statutory licensure exemption, cannot be charged with driving while their privilege has been suspended or revoked." Id.