SCOTUS Says States Have No Right to Money Taken Based on Overturned Convictions

This week the Supreme Court ruled that Colorado has no right to keep fines, fees, court costs, and restitution it extracts from criminal defendants whose convictions are later reversed. By forcing people to prove their innocence before they can get back property that is rightly theirs, the Court said, Colorado has been violating the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process. The Institute for Justice, which filed a brief in the case emphasizing that the presumption of innocence is an essential aspect of due process, makes a compelling argument that civil asset forfeiture routinely violates that principle.

The Court's decision in Nelson v. Colorado, which was joined by seven justices (Clarence Thomas dissented, and Neil Gorsuch joined the Court too recently to participate), came in response to challenges by Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, who tried to get back money the state took from them based on convictions that were overturned. Nelson, who in 2006 was convicted of two felonies and three misdemeanors based on allegations that she had abused her four children, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $8,193 in court costs, fees, and restitution, $702 of which was taken from her inmate account before she won a new trial and was acquitted. Madden, who in 2005 was convicted of two felonies based on allegations that he had patronized an underaged prostitute, received an indeterminate prison sentence and was ordered to pay $4,413 in costs, fees, and restitution, $1,978 of which was collected before his convictions were reversed on appeal and the state decided not to prosecute him again.

Nelson and Madden got a sympathetic hearing at the Colorado Court of Appeals, which concluded that they had a right to refunds. But the Colorado Supreme Court disagreed, saying they could get their money back only if they followed the process prescribed by Colorado's Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons statute, a.k.a. the Exoneration Act. That law requires exonerated defendants seeking compensation to file a lawsuit and prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence. That procedure is prohibitively expensive for people seeking the return of modest sums, and it is no help at all for people convicted of misdemeanors, which are not covered by the law.

More fundamentally, the U.S. Supreme Court says in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Exoneration Act is inappropriate for people who are seeking not compensation for wrongful convictions but the return of money the state took based on legal determinations that are no longer valid. "Colorado may not retain funds taken from Nelson and Madden solely because of their now-invalidated convictions, for Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions," Ginsburg writes. "To get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden. Instead...they are entitled to be presumed innocent." That was true before Nelson and Madden were tried, Ginsburg observes, and it is true again now that their convictions have been nullified.

The parallels with civil asset forfeiture are pretty clear. In both cases, the government takes someone's property based on allegations of criminal activity, and in both cases the owners are forced to prove their innocence if they want to get their property back.

Nelson v. Colorado "upholds the fundamental principle that Americans are entitled to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise," says Institute for Justice attorney Robert Everett Johnson. "The Court expressly rejected Colorado's argument that the 'presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials,' explaining that the government 'may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.' Unfortunately, civil forfeiture laws turn the presumption of innocence on its head. Using civil forfeiture, law enforcement seizes billions of dollars in cash and other property every year based only on suspicion of a crime. Property owners are then required to prove their own innocence to get that property back."

Civil forfeiture is actually worse than the financial losses suffered by Nelson and Madden, because at least in their cases the government initially had to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Since civil forfeiture is notionally an action against the property rather than the person to whom it belongs, the government need not charge the owner with a crime, let alone convict him.