By Christopher Zoukis
State legislatures cannot create obstacles that make it tough for people whose criminal convictions have been overturned to recover fines or restitution damages they have already paid, according to an April 19 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In its 7-1 decision in Nelson v. Colorado, the high court overturned a state law that forced exonerated defendants to file civil lawsuits, and then prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to get back already paid-out fines, fees or restitution damages.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by five other justices, said Colorado’s Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons, or Exoneration Act for short, violated the due process requirements of the 14th Amendment by ignoring the presumption of innocence to which the accused are entitled.
The state’s law, she wrote, “retains conviction-related assessments” until defendants who win on appeal or otherwise have the charges against them dismissed file separate civil lawsuits, and also demonstrate their innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The state process thus wrongly presumes a person Colorad found not guilty of a crime is nevertheless “guilty enough for monetary exactions.”
The challenge to the law was brought by two defendants who had been convicted on sex offense charges and ordered to pay thousands in fines and restitution awards. After their convictions were later overturned, they returned to criminal court to file motions asking to have their payments refunded.
But the state’s Supreme Court ruled Colorado criminal courts lack the power to make such refunds, and held state law required the now-exonerated defendants to file new civil lawsuits and meet an elevated standard of proof in order to recoup their court-ordered payments from their now-overturned convictions.
In fact, Colorado argued the exonerated defendants lacked any property interest in the fines, fees and restitution awards they had paid before their convictions were overturned, and even went so far as to say the state could enact a law denying them any refund at all.
The state also argued that, although it recently passed a law providing reimbursement for wrongly imprisoned people, it was under no obligation to do that, so it should similarly have no obligation to refund payments to people whose convictions were later overturned. Justice Ginsburg pointedly rejected that argument, saying the state has “zero claim of right” to the payments.
Some commentators viewed the case as an example of a frequently-heard criticism that some states view hefty new fees and fines on criminal defendants as new sources of public-sector revenues.
The state’s brief to the Supreme Court further argued once the state had transferred defendants’ payments to a victims’ restitution fund and other public funds, not only had the defendants lost any enforceable interest in the payments, but the state also lacked the authority to refund them.
One member of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed with the state and dissented from the high court’s opinion; Justice Samuel Alito sided with the court majority, but for reasons other than those in the majority opinion. The court’s newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch, came on the court after the case was argued and so did not take part in the decision.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.