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BELVIDERE, New Jersey (Reuters) — It was not the crime of the century when a man allegedly stole 58 cents from a car in rural New Jersey, but his trial and incarceration could end up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Over protests from a taxpayers' advocacy group and civil libertarians, prosecutors are pressing for a prison sentence of between five and 10 years for a drifter accused of stealing the money in Greenwich, New Jersey, in 1999.

In drifter Michael Monroe's defense, his attorney said he slid his hand through a slightly open window of the car to give more air to a Rottweiler dog that had been left inside by its owner.

It had already cost taxpayers $16,000 to keep Monroe in prison before his trial started Monday in Warren County Superior Court, local officials said.

"That's a waste of taxpayers' money for a crime that wasn't life-threatening," said Sam Perelli, state chairman of United Taxpayers of New Jersey. "For 58 cents it seems kind of crazy to prosecute him and use this kind of massive expenditure to incarcerate this man."

If he receives the maximum prison sentence, local officials said the tab for his confinement would be about $270,000.

"Ten years is a long time to put a man in prison for a burglary that only got him 58 cents," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Prosecutors alleged Monroe, 50, stole the money on June 6, 1999, by sliding his hand through a slightly open window of the car while it was parked in a supermarket lot. Car owner David Laman said he left the window open to let in air for his dog.

When Laman returned to the lot, he said he saw Monroe in the front seat. He then got out and drove away in his own car.

[Edited by Dron, 29-03-2001]

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