Can Exonerated Defendants Get Their Money Back?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 25, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Whether through new DNA testing, faulty forensic science, or procedural error, many criminal convictions eventually get overturned or vacated. Often, these exonerations don't occur until years or even decades after the fact and in that span a defendant may have already paid thousands of dollars in court costs, fines, fees, and restitution.

So when a conviction is tossed out, what happens to all that money? Until last week, Colorado had a statute on the books that allowed the state to keep fees and restitution paid by criminal defendants, even after their convictions were overturned. But the Supreme Court stepped in and ruled the law unconstitutional.

Presumed Innocent

The case at issue involved a pair of Coloradans, Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, who were convicted on unrelated sexual assault charges. Those convictions were later overturned, but the state refused to refund $12,500 it had collected from both of them in court costs, fees, and restitution. Instead, exonerated defendants would need to prove their innocence through a separate civil lawsuit in order to get their money back.

But the Supreme Court did away with all that. "To get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. "Instead ... they are entitled to be presumed innocent." In overturning the state statute, Ginsburg added, "Colorado has no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right."

Money Back Guarantee

If it seems obvious that a state can't keep money from someone who, after being exonerated, has not been convicted of a crime, it seemed that way to the majority of justices on the Court as well. During oral arguments for the case, Justice Elena Kagan noted that when a conviction is overturned, "the most natural, obvious thing in the world to say that the state's right to that money evaporates." That sentiment was echoed in Ginsburg's opinion: "Colorado may not retain funds taken from Nelson and Madden solely because of their now-invalidated conviction," she wrote. "Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions."

Perhaps sensing their position on the law wasn't going so well, Colorado had in the meantime passed a revised statute that allowed exonerated defendants the right to a refund. The Court's ruling will cover criminal defendants exonerated between now and when the new law takes effect in September. And this could mean a lot of money for the state. Colorado attorneys told the Denver Post they've been contacted by defendants who paid the state over $20,000 in some cases, only to have their convictions overturned.

The Supreme Court ruling should also apply to other states, allowing exonerated defendants nationwide a chance to get their money back. If your criminal conviction has been vacated and you're having trouble recouping fines and restitution, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for help.

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