Should Acquittal Lead to an Automatic Return of Monetary Penalties?

The Supreme Court will decide in Nelson v. Colorado whether it violates due process to require criminal defendants whose convictions have been reversed to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence to receive refunds of monetary penalties they have paid.  

Shannon Nelson was convicted of five charges relating to sexually assaulting her children. She was ordered to pay a variety of costs and fees. The appeals court overturned her conviction because the trial court allowed a lay witness to testify about the age at which children have the ability to remember information and relate it accurately. A new jury acquitted her.

She asked the trial court to refund the money she paid in costs and fees. It refused ruling that the legislature has not given it authority to issue refunds.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that due process does not require that a court award Nelson the costs and fees she paid.

The Colorado Exoneration Act authorizes a court to issue refunds to exonerated defendants. Nelson didn’t pursue a claim under the Exoneration Act. According to the Colorado Supreme Court: “The Exoneration Act provides sufficient process for defendants to seek refunds of costs, fees, and restitution that they paid in connection with their conviction.”

To receive compensation under the Act, the exonerated person must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that he or she was “actually innocent.” A dissenting judge concluded that the Exoneration Act “is not up to the task the majority assigns it for several reasons” including “requiring defendants who have never been validly convicted to resort to this Act flips the presumption of innocence.”

In most cases the party asking the Court to decide the case will claim the federal circuit courts are “split” on how the issue in the case should be resolved. Nelson begins her petition by dispelling the notion that her case presents a circuit split. “Colorado appears to be the only state that requires defendants to prove their innocence before they can get a refund of monetary penalties when a conviction is reversed. It is hardly surprising that Colorado stands alone, because Colorado’s scheme is so clearly contrary to due process.” Only time will tell whether the Supreme Court agrees with her.