High Court Backs Auto-Refunds for Exonerees

(CN) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that states can’t require a criminal defendant whose conviction is later tossed out to prove her actual innocence before recovering fines, fees and other costs associated with their case.

The caseShannon Nelson v. Colorado, challenged a Colorado requirement, spelled out in the state’s Exoneration Act, that criminal defendants prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that they are in fact innocent after a reversal of their conviction, before they can get their money back.

The petition for a writ of certiorari questioned whether this requirement violates the defendant’s due process rights.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Shannon Nelson, was assessed $8,192 in processing charges and restitution costs after being convicted on sexual assault charges; a second plaintiff, Louis Alonzo Madden, was assessed $4,413 in court costs and restitution on similar charges.

Both ultimately had their convictions thrown out on appeal, but a trial court declined to reimburse the money.

A Colorado appeals court said state law required a full refund.

But the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that costs could be returned only if they proved their innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Writing for a majority of justices on Wednesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the Colorado Supreme Court got the case wrong, and the state is obliged to refund the fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the wrongly convicted defendants whether they ultimately prove their actual innocence or not.

Colorado’s Exoneration Act, she said, violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

Colorado had argued that if the Exoneration Act provides sufficient process to compensate a defendant for the loss of her liberty, the Act should also suffice “when a defendant seeks compensation for the less significant deprivation of monetary assessments paid pursuant to a conviction that is later overturned.”

But Justice Ginsburg said based on that reasoning, an appeal would leave the defendant empty handed.

“Regardless of the outcome of an appeal, the State would have no refund obligation,” she wrote.

“Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interest in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question,” Ginsburg wrote. “To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.”

The ruling reversed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision and remanded the case for further consideration.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion.

But in a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said his colleagues are wrong.

“[B]oth opinions bypass the most important question in these cases: whether petitioners can show a substantive entitlement to a return of the money they paid pursuant to criminal convictions that were later reversed or vacated.”

“In my view, petitioners have not demonstrated that defendants whose convictions have been reversed possess a substantive entitlement, under either state law or the Constitution, to recover money they paid to the State pursuant to their convictions. Accordingly, I cannot agree with the Court’s decision to reverse the judgments of the Colorado Supreme Court,” he wrote.

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