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Montana Supreme Court Questions Court Costs for Indigent Defendant

The Montana Supreme Court ruled in May 2012 on limiting fines and costs in the case of George Moore, convicted of DUI. Moore was found guilty by jury in November 2010 and sentenced to thirteen months imprisonment and restitution of an array of costs totaling $2887.50. Moore appealed the costs.

The issue on appeal was whether the district court properly investigated Moore’s ability to pay the costs.

A probation officer prepared a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report that reflected Moore’s assets ($7900) and debts ($3500), place of employment as a cabinetmaker, and hourly wage ($14.50). The PSI recommended Moore pay a different array of costs and fees, and did not mention those costs Moore was eventually assessed. Moore’s counsel objected at sentencing, citing Moore’s indigence. From that arose the instant appeal.

The court, in de novo review, directed its attention to whether the lower court adhered sufficiently to the applicable sentencing statute. That statute specifically charged the sentencing convocation with ascertaining by questioning the defendant about whether he was able to pay costs. Under all three of the costs imposed – prosecution, defense and jury – the governing statute forbade the court the imposition of such costs “unless the defendant is or will be able to pay the costs.” The Supreme Court of Montana determined that the district court did not properly investigate these issues.

The court highlighted the concept, that, though it was not the circumstance in the cause at bar, the requiring of indigent defendants payment of a host of costs tends to push the defendants to plea bargain as a matter of financial expedience even when jury trial is a better option. To blindly apply the provision to a defendant who cannot afford the fees undermines the defendant the right to a trial by jury.

The Montana Supreme Court remanded to the district court for a determination as to whether Moore could in fact pay those fees, directing also the district court to stay mindful of an indigent defendant’s inviolate right to a jury trial in a criminal case. See: State of Montana v. Moore, 365 Mont. 13, 277 P.3d 1212 (Mont. 2012).

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Related legal case

State of Montana v. Moore