SCOTUS: Exonerated Defendants Can Get Their Money Back

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 24, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Up until last week, Colorado had a law in place allowing the state to keep fees and restitution paid by criminal defendants, even after their convictions were overturned. That was until the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority in a 7-1 decision, held "Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions." And these monetary exactions were not insignificant. The two plaintiffs in the case had paid $12,500 between them in court costs, fees, and restitution, and Colorado attorneys say they've been contacted by exonerated defendants who've paid over $20,000, only to have their convictions vacated. Here's a look at the Court's ruling.

The Most Natural, Obvious Thing in the World

The case involved two Coloradans, Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, whose convictions on unrelated sexual assault charges were later overturned. During oral arguments for the case, Justice Elena Kagan, was unreceptive to the idea of the state keeping fines and fees from exonerated defendants, noting that when a conviction is overturned, "the most natural, obvious thing in the world [is] to say that the state's right to that money evaporates." Ginsburg echoed that sentiment in her the Court's opinion, ruling "Colorado has no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right."

"Colorado may not retain funds taken from Nelson and Madden solely because of their now-invalidated conviction," Ginsburg wrote, adding "Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions."

Under the old Colorado law, exonerated defendants had to prove their innocence through a separate civil lawsuit in order to get their money back, but the Supreme Court did away with that provision as well. "To get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden," the Court held. "Instead ... they are entitled to be presumed innocent."

Law and Judgment

Sensing their argument in the Supreme Court wasn't going so well, Colorado in the meantime passed a revised statute giving exonerated defendants a right to a refund. But the Court's ruling means anyone exonerated between now and when the new law takes effect in September the chance to get their money back.

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