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Volokh Conspiracy

Supreme Court voids Colorado's 'presumption of guilt' (Nelson v. Colorado)


I'm pleased to report that the Supreme Court today, by a 7-1 vote, held that Colorado's scheme for refunding fees imposed upon persons convicted of crimes whose convictions are subsequently overturned—a scheme that required the refund claimants to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that they were factually innocent of the crimes with which they had been charged—violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

In brief,*** upon their convictions for various state law crimes, petitioners Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, in addition to their prison sentences, were required to pay several thousand dollars for "court costs, fees, and restitution" to the state. Their convictions were subsequently overturned. In order to receive a refund of their money, Colorado required them to proceed via the state's Exoneration Act, which requires, among other things, that they prove their actual innocence of the crimes, by clear and convincing evidence.

***I blogged about this case several months ago (and helped to draft an amicus brief, submitted jointly by the Institute for Justice and the Cato Institute, in support of the petitioners' ultimately victorious claim that Colorado's procedures are unconstitutional), and you can find more details and background about the case there.

It seemed pretty outrageous to us. It's the petitioners' money; as the court put it, the "sole legal basis for these assessments was the fact of [petitioners'] convictions," without which "Colorado would have no legal right to exact and retain petitioners' funds." Once the convictions are overturned, the petitioners are presumed innocent; why should they bear the burden of proving that before they can get their money back?

The court, in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed with us that they shouldn't and that Colorado's scheme "does not comport with due process." Applying the "familiar procedural due process inspection instructed by Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U. S. 319 (1976)," the court evaluated "(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, "[a]ll three considerations weigh decisively against Colorado's scheme":

  • The petitioners have an "obvious interest" in the return of their money,*** to which the state has no entitlement;
  • the "risk of erroneous deprivation" is high under Colorado's procedures, both because defendants may not be able to sustain the burden of proving their innocence and because "the cost of mounting a claim under the Exoneration Act and retaining a lawyer to pursue it" will often be "prohibitive"; and
  • There is no governmental interest furthered by Colorado's procedures, because Colorado has "no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right."

[*** Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, disagreed with this point: In his view, though he agrees that "if petitioners had never been convicted, Colorado could not have required them to pay the money at issue," once the state has taken it, it belongs to the state, and therefore the petitioners are not being deprived of "property" within the meaning of the due process clause. Presumably, therefore, Colorado doesn't have to provide them with any refund procedures—surely an odd result.]

Importantly, the court resoundingly reaffirmed the central importance of the presumption of innocence. Rejecting Colorado's argument that "the funds belong to the State because Nelson's and Madden's convictions were in place when the funds were taken," the court observed that:

"[O]nce those convictions were erased, the presumption of their innocence was restored. See, e.g., Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U. S. 578, 585 (1988) (After a "conviction has been reversed, unless and until [the defendant] should be retried, he must be presumed innocent of that charge.")

"[A]xiomatic and elementary," the presumption of innocence "lies at the foundation of our criminal law." Coffin v. United States, 156 U. S. 432, 453 (1895). 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. [Emphasis added]

Moreover, the court rejected Colorado's argument that the "presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials," and therefore has no application to Exoneration Act refund proceedings (which are civil, rather than criminal, actions). Not so: "[U]nder the Due Process Clause, [an individual] who has not been adjudged guilty of any crime may not be punished." Period.

All in all, a good day for the due process clause.