Nelson v. Colorado
581 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Nelson, convicted of felonies and misdemeanors arising from the alleged abuse of her children, was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fees, and restitution. Nelson’s conviction was reversed; on retrial, she was acquitted. Madden was also convicted by a Colorado jury. The court imposed a prison sentence and ordered him to pay $4,413.00 in costs, fees, and restitution. Madden’s convictions were reversed and vacated; the state did not appeal or retry the case. The Colorado Department of Corrections withheld $702.10 from Nelson’s inmate account between her conviction and acquittal. Madden paid the state $1,977.75 after his conviction. Once their convictions were invalidated, they sought refunds. The Colorado Supreme Court reasoned that Colorado’s Exoneration Act provided the exclusive authority for refunds and that neither petitioner had filed a claim under that Act; the court also upheld the constitutionality of the Act, which permits Colorado to retain conviction-related assessments until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The Supreme Court reversed. The Act’s scheme violates the guarantee of due process. Petitioners have an obvious interest in regaining the money. The state may not retain these funds simply because their convictions were in place when the funds were taken; once the convictions were erased, the presumption of innocence was restored. Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, guilty enough for monetary exactions. Colorado’s scheme creates an unacceptable risk of the erroneous deprivation of defendants’ property, conditioning refunds on proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence, while defendants in petitioners’ position are presumed innocent. When the amount sought is not large, the cost of pursuing a claim under the Act would be prohibitive. Colorado has no equitable interest in withholding petitioners’ money.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

NELSON v. COLORADO

certiorari to the colorado supreme court

No. 15–1256. Argued January 9, 2017—Decided April 19, 2017[1]

Petitioner Shannon Nelson was convicted by a Colorado jury of two felonies and three misdemeanors arising from the alleged sexual and physical abuse of her four children. The trial court imposed a prison term of 20 years to life and ordered her to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fees, and restitution. On appeal, Nelson’s conviction was reversed for trial error, and on retrial, she was acquitted of all charges.

Petitioner Louis Alonzo Madden was convicted by a Colorado jury of attempting to patronize a prostituted child and attempted sexual assault. The trial court imposed an indeterminate prison sentence and ordered him to pay $4,413.00 in costs, fees, and restitution. After one of Madden’s convictions was reversed on direct review and the other vacated on postconviction review, the State elected not to appeal or retry the case.

The Colorado Department of Corrections withheld $702.10 from Nelson’s inmate account between her conviction and acquittal, and Madden paid the State $1,977.75 after his conviction. In both cases, the funds were allocated to costs, fees, and restitution. Once their convictions were invalidated, both petitioners moved for return of the funds. Nelson’s trial court denied her motion outright, and Madden’s postconviction court allowed a refund of costs and fees, but not restitution. The Colorado Court of Appeals concluded that both petitioners were entitled to seek refunds of all they had paid, but the Colorado Supreme Court reversed. It reasoned that Colorado’s Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons statute (Exoneration Act or Act), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§13–65–101, 13–65–102, 13–65–103, provided the exclusive authority for refunds and that, because neither Nelson nor Madden had filed a claim under that Act, the courts lacked authority to order refunds. The Colorado Supreme Court also held that there was no due process problem under the Act, which permits Colorado to retain conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Held: The Exoneration Act’s scheme does not comport with the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. Pp. 5–11.

(a) The procedural due process inspection required by Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U. S. 319 , governs these cases. Medina v. California, 505 U. S. 437 , controls when state procedural rules that are part of the criminal process are at issue. These cases, in contrast, concern the continuing deprivation of property after a conviction has been reversed or vacated, with no prospect of reprosecution. Pp. 5–6.

(b) The three considerations balanced under Mathews—the private interest affected; the risk of erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used; and the governmental interest at stake—weigh decisively against Colorado’s scheme. Pp. 6–10.

(1) Nelson and Madden have an obvious interest in regaining the money they paid to Colorado. The State may not retain these funds simply because Nelson’s and Madden’s convictions were in place when the funds were taken, for once those convictions were erased, the presumption of innocence was restored. See, e.g., Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U. S. 578 . And Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions. Pp. 6–8.

(2) Colorado’s scheme creates an unacceptable risk of the erroneous deprivation of defendants’ property. The Exoneration Act conditions refund on defendants’ proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence, but defendants in petitioners’ position are presumed innocent. Moreover, the Act provides no remedy for assessments tied to invalid misdemeanor convictions. And when, as here, the recoupment amount sought is not large, the cost of mounting a claim under the Act and retaining counsel to pursue it would be prohibitive.

Colorado argues that an Act that provides sufficient process to compensate a defendant for the loss of her liberty must suffice to compensate a defendant for the lesser deprivation of money. But Nelson and Madden seek the return of their property, not compensation for its temporary deprivation. Just as restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction. Other procedures cited by Colorado—the need for probable cause to support criminal charges, the jury-trial right, and the State’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—do not address the risk faced by a defendant whose conviction has been overturned that she will not recover funds taken from her based solely on a conviction no longer valid. Pp. 8–10.

(3) Colorado has no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right. The State has identified no equitable considerations favoring its position, nor indicated any way in which the Exoneration Act embodies such considerations. P. 10.

362 P. 3d 1070 (first judgment) and 364 P. 3d 866 (second judgment), reversed and remanded.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Notes

1  Together with Madden v. Colorado, also on certiorari to the same court (see this Court’s Rule 12.4).
Primary Holding
A state may not retain conviction-related assessments until a prevailing defendant in a criminal proceeding starts a separate civil proceeding and proves their innocence by clear and convincing evidence, since this type of law violates due process.

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