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Court: No public defender unless jail time is at stake

May 1, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court says a judge can’t order a public defender to represent a criminal defendant if no jail time is at stake.

The court ruled 5-0 on Wednesday that Cascade County Justice of the Peace Steven Fagenstrom doesn’t have the authority to compel the Montana Office of the State Public Defender to represent a defendant who was charged with misdemeanor theft of $650 in August.

The maximum penalty for first-offense theft of property not exceeding $1,500 is a $500 fine without the potential for jail time.

Fagenstrom argued that a state law barring the agency from representing indigent offenders when incarceration isn’t a possible punishment is unconstitutional.

The high court ruled that the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee the right to counsel at public expense for such misdemeanor offenses.

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