Mark Lipski was charged with operating a vehicle with suspended registration. He requested appointed counsel, but the court advised him that he was not entitled to the assistance of appointed counsel because if convicted, he would be sentenced to pay a fine and not to serve a term of incarceration. Lipski argued that because he was unwilling and unable to pay any fine, he would serve time in jail as an inevitable consequence of the conviction, and therefore had the right to appointed counsel. The court denied his request. Lipski proceeded to trial without counsel and was convicted by a jury. The court imposed a $300 fine plus surcharges. Lipski appealed the conviction, arguing that the court violated his constitutional right to the assistance of appointed counsel in his defense.
Counsel need not be provided for an indigent defendant solely because later imprisonment is possible if the defendant engages in new conduct that violates a court order. As Lipski was not at risk of being sentenced to incarceration upon his conviction, the court’s denial of appointed counsel was not constitutionally infirm. Further, Lipski’s claim that he would be incarcerated for his inability to pay the fine was inaccurate: First, he would be required to return to court for further disposition if he defaulted in payment on the fine. When imposing a sanction for failure to pay a fine, the court may either incarcerate the offender or order him to perform community service. Thus, incarceration was not inevitable. Second, a court may not incarcerate an offender for an unpaid fine if the offender demonstrates by a preponderance of the evidence that the default was not attributable to an intentional or knowing refusal to obey the court’s order. Therefore, inability to pay does not result in incarceration. For these reasons, the State was not required to provide counsel to Lipski because he was not at risk of incarceration as part of the sentence. However, the Court explained that although Lipski’s stated intention to refuse to pay the fine in the future even if he is able to pay it did not entitle him to state-paid counsel at the stage of the proceedings under review, consideration of that claim was premature. In other words, the Court implied that Lipski might be constitutionally entitled to counsel at a later stage of the proceedings.
On February 24, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Lipski’s petition for writ of certiorari.
You can find relevant court documents here.