States Cannot Keep Fines from Exonerated

The Supreme Court recently held that those who have had a criminal conviction overturned, but had paid restitution while awaiting the outcome of their appeal, must be refunded that money. Some may be left scratching their head that this made it all the way to the supreme court, but it was not a unanimous decision. Despite the fact that their convictions were overturned, the state of Colorado insisted on keeping the restitution. This case, titled Nelson v. Colorado, was a 7-1 decision, with newly appointed Justice Gorsuch sitting this one out.

Colorado had adopted an exoneration act that allows “an innocent person who was wrongly convicted” to file a civil suit to seek refunds but only if they could prove their innocence. This would flip the presumption of innocence on its head, according to the majority opinion written by Justice Ginsburg. She eloquently wrote “Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary extractions.”

Justice Thomas was not convinced that those who had their cases overturned had “any substantive entitlement, under either state law or the constitution” to the previously paid money. He reasoned that since the defendants were not wrongly deprived of the money, the state did not have to provide a process for its return. UCLA law professor Stuart Banner and the UCLA Supreme Court Clinic appealed the case for Mr. Nelson and noted that Colorado was the only state that regularly refused to refund money from those whose convictions were overturned.

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