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US Supreme Court Orders Court Costs to be Returned When Conviction is Overturned

cash-money-1520773-300x225In a recent decision – Nelson v. Colorado & Madden v. Colorado – the United States Supreme Court issued an important opinion impacting individuals who have had their criminal convictions invalidated. Specifically, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that “[w]hen a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, … the State [is] obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction.”

The case consists to two joined cases. The backgrounds were as follows. “Nelson … was convicted … of five counts … arising from the alleged sexual and physical abuse of her four children…. The trial court imposed a prison sentence of 20 years to life and ordered Nelson to pay court costs, fees, and restitution totaling $8,192.50…. On appeal, Nelson’s conviction[s] [were] reversed for trial error…. On retrial, a new jury acquitted Nelson of all charges…. Madden … was convicted by a Colorado jury of attempting to patronize a prostituted child and attempted third-degree sexual assault by force…. The trial court imposed an indeterminate prison sentence and ordered Madden to pay costs, fees, and restitution totaling $4,413.00…. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed one of Madden’s convictions on direct review, and a postconviction court vacated the other…. The State elected not to appeal or retry the case…. Between Nelson’s conviction and acquittal, the Colorado Department of Corrections withheld $702.10 from her inmate account, $287.50 of which went to costs and fees and $414.60 to restitution…. Following Madden’s conviction, Madden paid Colorado $1,977.75, $1,220 of which went to costs and fees and $757.75 to restitution…. The sole legal basis for these assessments was the fact of Nelson’s and Madden’s convictions.”

After their convictions were “invalidated, [Nelson and Madden] moved for return of the amounts Colorado had taken from them. In Nelson’s case, the trial court denied the motion outright…. In Madden’s case, the post conviction court allowed the refund of costs and fees, but not restitution.” Nelson and Madden moved for “refunds of all they had paid, including amounts allocated to restitution.” Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against them on the ground that they had failed to follow the proper procedure for seeking a refund, the filing of a claim under Colorado’s Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons statute (Exoneration Act). “There was no due process problem,” stated the Colorado Supreme Court, “because the [Exoneration] Act ‘provides sufficient process for defendants to seek refunds of costs, fees, and restitution that they paid in connection with their conviction.’” Nelson and Madden sought certiorari.

In its decision reversing the judgments of the Colorado Supreme Court, the U. S. Supreme Court noted that under Colorado’s Exoneration Act, “a defendant must prove her innocence by clear and convincing evidence to obtain the refund of costs, fees, and restitution paid pursuant to an invalid conviction. That scheme, we hold, does not comport with [the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of] due process.” The Court reached that conclusion by applying the balancing test set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U. S. 319 (1976), which “evaluates (A) the private interest affected; (B) the risk of erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used; and (C) the governmental interest at stake.” Here, opined the Court, “[a]ll three considerations weigh decisively against Colorado’s scheme.” “Is there a risk of erroneous deprivation of defendants’ 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 defendants’ proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence…. But to get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden,” because “once … convictions [are] erased, the presumption of … innocence [is] restored.” Thus, contrary to the Colorado Supreme Court’s view, “the Exoneration Act is not an adequate remedy for the property deprivation Nelson and Madden experienced.”

Criminal convictions do get overturned on appeal, for a myriad of reasons. While such a result is undoubtedly a positive for any defendant, the conviction may still result in a number of negative consequences following the conviction and prior to the reversal, including the requirement that the defendant provide significant sums of money to the court. If you or a loved one needs assistance on a criminal appeal and/or handling the negative consequences of an overturned conviction, contact Attorney Daniel Cappetta. He has helped numerous defendants appeal their convictions and navigate the appellate process.