When a criminal conviction is invalidated on appeal, the state is obligated to refund fees, court costs and restitution paid by the defendant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month.
In Nelson V. Colorado, a violation of due process rights was found under the 14th Amendment. The state’s statute regarding compensation for the exonerated, which allows the retention of conviction-related assessments until the exonerated person proves his or her innocence by clear and convincing evidence in a civil court proceeding.
“Is there a risk of erroneous deprivation of defendant’s’ interest in return of their funds if, as Colorado urges, the Exoneration Act is the exclusive remedy? Indeed yes, for the act conditions refund on defendant’s’ proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. “But to get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden.”
Two petitioners both had convictions dealing with sexual abuse or attempted sexual abuse of children. One was ordered to pay $8,192.50 in fees, and was acquitted of all charges on appeal. The Colorado Department of Corrections kept $702.10 of that money. The other petitioner had one conviction reversed on direct review, and the others were vacated on post-conviction review. He was ordered to pay $4,413 in fees, and paid the state $1,977.75 after his conviction.
Neither person filed a claim under the state’s Exoneration Act, but both petitioned the court for a refund. The first petitioner’s trial court denied her motion, and the second petitioner’s post-conviction court refunded costs and fees, but not restitution. The Colorado Court of Appeal reversed, but the state supreme court found that since the two did not file a claim under the statute, the trial courts did not have the authority to grant refunds.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent, arguing that the majority did not address whether petitioners could show “a substantive entitlement” for the money they paid in accordance with their criminal convictions.
“No one disputes that if petitioners had never been convicted, Colorado could not have required them to pay the money at issue. And no one disputes that Colorado cannot require petitioners to pay any additional costs, fees, or restitution now that their convictions have been invalidated,” Thomas wrote. “It does not follow, however, that petitioners have a property right in the money they paid pursuant to their then-valid convictions, which now belongs to the state and the victims under Colorado law.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a concurrence for the judgement, finding that the majority’s treatment of restitution wasn’t “grounded in any historical analysis.” He wrote at length about Mathews v. Eldridge, a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case that established a three-part balancing test to determine if the government must offer a hearing to a citizen who faces losing his or her property.
“The Court summarily rejects the proposition that ‘equitable considerations’ might militate against a blanket rule requiring the refund of money paid as restitution…but why is this so,” Alito writes. “What if the evidence amply establishes that the defendant injured the victims to whom restitution was paid but the defendant’s conviction is reversed on a ground that would be inapplicable in a civil suit?”