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U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Colorado’s Attempt to Keep Funds from Exonerated Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

On April 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a powerful blow for the rights of exonerated prisoners when it reversed a decision of the Colorado Supreme Court that would have allowed the state to retain funds collected from two prisoners before their convictions were set aside. In doing so, the high court sent a strong message that Colorado’s policy of keeping the funds after the convictions were vacated violated basic concepts of due process.

Shannon Nelson was convicted in 2006 of five counts of physical abuse, sentenced to 20 years to life and ordered to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fees and restitution. She appealed, was granted a retrial and was acquitted of all charges.

 Louis Alonzo Madden, convicted in 2005 of patronizing a prostituted child, was sentenced to an indeterminate prison sentence plus costs, fees and restitution of $4,413. His judgment was reversed on direct appeal.

At the time their convictions were set aside, Nelson had already paid $702.10 and Madden had paid $1,977.75 to the Colorado Department of Corrections. Both requested refunds of those payments after their release, which were refused. They filed separate lawsuits, and after mixed results from their sentencing courts, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in their favor. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed, however, saying the state could keep the money collected before their convictions were vacated, as neither Nelson nor Madden had filed claims under the state’s Exoneration Act. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who delivered the opinion, framed the question before the Court as follows: “When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obligated to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon and as a consequence of the conviction? Our answer is yes.”

The Supreme Court continued: “Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant instituted a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.”

The attorneys representing Nelson and Madden, citing the case of Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), had argued that having the money refunded would not have been a problem if their clients lived in any other state. “Colorado appears to be the only state that does not refund this money when a conviction is reversed,” they noted.

According to Justice Ginsburg, “Under the Mathews balancing test, a court evaluates (A) the private interest affected; (B) the risk of erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used; and (C) the governmental interest at stake.... All three considerations weigh decisively against Colorado’s scheme.”

In conclusion, the Supreme Court held that “Colorado has no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right.... To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of extractions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.” Justice Alito issued a concurring opinion, while Justice Thomas dissented. See: Nelson v. Colorado, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 15-1256 (April 19, 2017). 


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Related legal case

Nelson v. Colorado