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

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NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.



No. 15–1256




on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of colorado

[April 19, 2017]

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction? Our answer is yes. Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.



Two cases are before us for review. Petitioner Shannon Nelson, in 2006, was convicted by a Colorado jury of five counts—two felonies and three misdemeanors—arising from the alleged sexual and physical abuse of her four children. 362 P. 3d 1070, 1071 (Colo. 2015); App. 25–26. 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. 362 P. 3d, at 1071. On appeal, Nelson’s conviction was reversed for trial error. Ibid. On retrial, a new jury acquitted Nelson of all charges. Ibid.

Petitioner Louis Alonzo Madden, in 2005, was convicted by a Colorado jury of attempting to patronize a prostituted child and attempted third-degree sexual assault by force. See 364 P. 3d 866, 867 (Colo. 2015). The trial court imposed an indeterminate prison sentence and ordered Madden to pay costs, fees, and restitution totaling $4,413.00. Ibid. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed one of Madden’s convictions on direct review, and a postconviction court vacated the other. Ibid. The State elected not to appeal or retry the case. Ibid.

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[1] and $414.60 to restitution. See 362 P. 3d, at 1071, and n. 1. Following Madden’s conviction, Madden paid Colorado $1,977.75, $1,220 of which went to costs and fees[2] and $757.75 to restitution. See 364 P. 3d, at 867. The sole legal basis for these assessments was the fact of Nelson’s and Madden’s convictions.[3] Absent those convictions, Colorado would have no legal right to exact and retain petitioners’ funds.

Their convictions invalidated, both petitioners moved for return of the amounts Colorado had taken from them. In Nelson’s case, the trial court denied the motion outright. 362 P. 3d, at 1071. In Madden’s case, the postconviction court allowed the refund of costs and fees, but not restitution. 364 P. 3d, at 867–868.

The same Colorado Court of Appeals panel heard both cases and concluded that Nelson and Madden were entitled to seek refunds of all they had paid, including amounts allocated to restitution. See People v. Nelson, 369 P. 3d 625, 628–629 (2013); People v. Madden, 2013 WL 1760869, *1 (Apr. 25, 2013). Costs, fees, and restitution, the court held, must be “tied to a valid conviction,” 369 P. 3d, at 627–628, absent which a court must “retur[n] the defendant to the status quo ante,” 2013 WL 1760869, at *2.

The Colorado Supreme Court reversed in both cases. A court must have statutory authority to issue a refund, that court stated. 362 P. 3d, at 1077; 364 P. 3d, at 868. Colorado’s Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons statute (Exoneration Act or Act), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§13–65–101, 13–65–102, 13–65–103 (2016), passed in 2013, “provides the proper procedure for seeking a refund,” the court ruled. 362 P. 3d, at 1075, 1077. As no other statute addresses refunds, the court concluded that the Exoneration Act is the “exclusive process for exonerated defendants seeking a refund of costs, fees, and restitution.” Id., at 1078.[4] Because neither Nelson nor Madden had filed a claim under the Act, the court further determined, their trial courts lacked authority to order a refund. Id., at 1075, 1078; 364 P. 3d, at 867.[5] There was no due process problem, the court continued, because the Act “provides sufficient process for defendants to seek refunds of costs, fees, and restitution that they paid in connection with their conviction.” 362 P. 3d, at 1078.

Justice Hood dissented in both cases. Because neither petitioner has been validly convicted, he explained, each must be presumed innocent. Id., at 1079 (Nelson); 364 P. 3d, at 870 (adopting his reasoning from Nelson in Madden). Due process therefore requires some mechanism “for the return of a defendant’s money,” Justice Hood maintained, 362 P. 3d, at 1080; as the Exoneration Act required petitioners to prove their innocence, the Act, he concluded, did not supply the remedy due process demands, id., at 1081. We granted certiorari. 579 U. S. ___ (2016).


The Exoneration Act provides a civil claim for relief “to compensate an innocent person who was wrongly con-victed.” 362 P. 3d, at 1075. Recovery under the Act is avail-able only to a defendant who has served all or part of a term of incarceration pursuant to a felony conviction, and whose conviction has been overturned for reasons other than insufficiency of evidence or legal error unrelated to actual innocence. See §13–65–102. To succeed on an Exoneration Act claim, a petitioner must show, by clear and convincing evidence, her actual innocence of the offense of conviction. §§13–65–101(1), 13–65–102(1). A successful petitioner may recoup, in addition to compensation for time served,[6] “any fine, penalty, court costs, or restitution . . . paid . . . as a result of his or her wrongful conviction.” Id., at 1075 (quoting §13–65–103(2)(e)(V)).

Under Colorado’s legislation, as just recounted, 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 due process. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado.


The familiar procedural due process inspection instructed by Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U. S. 319 (1976) , governs these cases. Colorado argues that we should instead apply the standard from Medina v. California, 505 U. S. 437, 445 (1992) , and inquire whether Nelson and Madden were exposed to a procedure offensive to a fundamental principle of justice. Medina “provide[s] the appropriate framework for assessing the validity of state procedural rules” that “are part of the criminal process.” Id., at 443. Such rules concern, for example, the allocation of burdens of proof and the type of evidence qualifying as admissible.[7] These cases, in contrast, concern the continuing deprivation of property after a conviction has been reversed or vacated, with no prospect of reprosecution. See Kaley v. United States, 571 U. S. ___, ___, n. 4 (2014) (Roberts, C. J., dissenting) (slip op., at 10–11, n. 4) (explaining the different offices of Mathews and Medina). Because no further criminal process is implicated, Mathews “provides the relevant inquiry.” 571 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11, n. 4).


Under the Mathews balancing test, a court 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. 424 U. S., at 335. All three considerations weigh decisively against Colorado’s scheme.


Nelson and Madden have an obvious interest in regaining the money they paid to Colorado. Colorado urges, however, that the funds belong to the State because Nelson’s and Madden’s convictions were in place when the funds were taken. Tr. of Oral Arg. 29–31. But once 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.”).[8] “[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) .[9] Colorado may not retain funds taken from Nelson and Madden solely because of their now-invalidated convictions, see supra, at 2–3, and n. 3, for Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.[10]

That petitioners prevailed on subsequent review rather than in the first instance, moreover, should be inconsequential. Suppose a trial judge grants a motion to set aside a guilty verdict for want of sufficient evidence. In that event, the defendant pays no costs, fees, or restitution. Now suppose the trial court enters judgment on a guilty verdict, ordering cost, fee, and restitution payments by reason of the conviction, but the appeals court upsets the conviction for evidentiary insufficiency. By what right does the State retain the amount paid out by the defendant? “[I]t should make no difference that the reviewing court, rather than the trial court, determined the evidence to be insufficient.” Burks v. United States, 437 U. S. 1, 11 (1978) . The vulnerability of the State’s argument that it can keep the amounts exacted so long as it prevailed in the court of first instance is more apparent still if we assume a case in which the sole penalty is a fine. On Colorado’s reasoning, an appeal would leave the defendant emptyhanded; regardless of the outcome of an appeal, the State would have no refund obligation. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 41, 44.[11]


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. §13–65–101(1)(a). But to get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden. Instead, as explained supra, at 6–7, they are entitled to be presumed innocent.

Furthermore, as Justice Hood noted in dissent, the Act provides no remedy at all for any assessments tied to invalid misdemeanor convictions (Nelson had three). 362 P. 3d, at 1081, n. 1; see §13–65–102(1)(a). And when amounts a defendant seeks to recoup are not large, as is true in Nelson’s and Madden’s cases, see supra, at 2, the cost of mounting a claim under the Exoneration Act and retaining a lawyer to pursue it would be prohibitive.[12]

Colorado argued on brief that if the Exoneration Act provides sufficient process to compensate a defendant for the loss of her liberty, the Act should also suffice “when a defendant seeks compensation for the less significant deprivation of monetary assessments paid pursuant to a conviction that is later overturned.” Brief for Respondent 40. The comparison is inapt. Nelson and Madden seek restoration of funds they paid to the State, not compensation for temporary deprivation of those funds. Petitioners seek only their money back, not interest on those funds for the period the funds were in the State’s custody. Just as the 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.

Colorado also suggests that “numerous pre- and post-deprivation procedures”—including 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—adequately minimize the risk of erroneous deprivation of property. Id., at 31; see id., at 31–35. But Colorado misperceives the risk at issue. The risk here involved is not the risk of wrongful or invalid conviction any criminal defendant may face. It is, instead, the risk faced by a defendant whose conviction has already been overturned that she will not recover funds taken from her solely on the basis of a conviction no longer valid. None of the above-stated procedures addresses that risk, and, as just explained, the Exoneration Act is not an adequate rem-edy for the property deprivation Nelson and Madden experienced.[13]


Colorado has no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right. “Equitable [c]onsiderations,” Colorado suggests, may bear on whether a State may withhold funds from criminal defendants after their convictionsare overturned. Brief for Respondent 20–22. Colorado, however, has identified no such consideration relevantto petitioners’ cases, nor has the State indicated anyway in which the Exoneration Act embodies “equitable considerations.”


Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interest in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question. To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.

*  *  *

The judgments of the Colorado Supreme Court are reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of these cases.


1  Of the $287.50 for costs and fees, $125 went to the victim compensation fund and $162.50 to the victims and witnesses assistance and law enforcement fund (VAST fund). See 362 P. 3d 1070, 1071, n. 1 (Colo. 2015).
2  Of the $1,220 for costs and fees, $125 went to the victim compensation fund and $1,095 to the VAST fund ($1,000 of which was for the special advocate surcharge). See App. 79; 364 P. 3d 866, 869 (Colo. 2015).
3  See Colo. Rev. Stat. §24–4.1–119(1)(a) (2005) (levying victim-compensation-fund fees for “each criminal action resulting in a conviction or in a deferred judgment and sentence”); §24–4.2–104(1)(a)(1)(I) (2005) (same, for VAST fund fees); §24–4.2–104(1)(a)(1)(II) (same, for special advocate surcharge); §18–1.3–603(1) (2005) (with one exception, “[e]very order of conviction . . . shall include consideration of restitution”). See also 362 P. 3d, at 1073 (“[T]he State pays the cost of criminal cases when a defendant is acquitted.” (citing Colo. Rev. Stat. §16–18–101(1) (2015))). Under Colorado law, a restitution order tied to a criminal conviction is rendered as a separate civil judgment. See §18–1.3–603(4)(a) (2005). If the conviction is reversed, any restitution order dependent on that conviction is simultaneously vacated. See People v. Scearce, 87 P. 3d 228, 234–235 (Colo. App. 2003).
4  While these cases were pending in this Court, Colorado passed new legislation to provide “[r]eimbursement of amounts paid following a vacated conviction.” See Colo. House Bill 17–1071 (quoting language for Colo. Rev. Stat. §18–1.3–703, the new provision). That legislation takes effect September 1, 2017, and has no effect on the cases before us.
5  Prior to the Exoneration Act, the Colorado Supreme Court recognized the competence of courts, upon reversal of a conviction, to order the refund of monetary exactions imposed on a defendant solely by reason of the conviction. Toland v. Strohl, 147 Colo. 577, 586, 364 P. 2d 588, 593 (1961).
6  Compensation under the Exoneration Act includes $70,000 per year of incarceration for the wrongful conviction; additional sums per year served while the defendant is under a sentence of death, or placed on parole or probation or on a sex offender registry; compensation for child support payments due during incarceration; tuition waivers at state institutions of higher education for the exonerated person and for any children conceived or legally adopted before the incarceration; and reasonable attorney’s fees for bringing an Exoneration Act claim. §13–65–103(2), (3) (2016).
7  See Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U. S. 348 –362 (1996) (standard of proof to establish incompetence to stand trial); Dowling v. United States, 493 U. S. 342 –344, 352 (1990) (admissibility of testimony about a prior crime of which the defendant was acquitted); Patterson v. New York, 432 U. S. 197 –202 (1977) (burden of proving affirmative defense); Medina v. California, 505 U. S. 437 –446, 457 (1992) (burden of proving incompetence to stand trial).
8  Citing Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520 (1979) , Colorado asserts that “[t]he presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials” and thus has no application here. Brief for Respondent 40, n. 19. Colorado misapprehends Wolfish. Our opinion in that case recognized that “under the Due Process Clause,” a detainee who “has not been adjudged guilty of any crime” may not be punished. 441 U. S., at 535–536; see id., at 535–540. Wolfish held only that the presumption does not prevent the government from “detain[ing a defendant] to ensure his presence at trial . . . so long as [the] conditions and restrictions [of his detention] do not amount to punishment, or otherwise violate the Constitution.” Id., at 536–537.
9  Were Medina applicable, Colorado’s Exoneration Act scheme would similarly fail due process measurement. Under Medina, a criminal procedure violates due process if “it offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” 505 U. S., at 445 (quoting Patterson, 432 U. S., at 202). The presumption of innocence unquestionably fits that bill.
10  Colorado invites a distinction between convictions merely “void-able,” rather than “void,” and urges that the invalidated convictions here fall in the voidable category. See Brief for Respondent 32–33, and n. 11. As Justice Hood noted in dissent, however, “reversal is reversal,” regardless of the reason, “[a]nd an invalid conviction is no conviction at all.” 362 P. 3d, at 1080.
11  The dissent echoes Colorado’s argument. If Nelson and Madden prevailed at trial, the dissent agrees, no costs, fees, or restitution could be exacted. See post, at 6. But if they prevailed on appellate inspection, the State gets to keep their money. See ibid. Under Colorado law, as the dissent reads the Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion, “moneys lawfully exacted pursuant to a valid conviction become public funds (or[, in the case of restitution,] the victims’ money).” Post, at 3–4. Shut from the dissent’s sights, however, the convictions pursuant to which the State took petitioners’ money were invalid, hence the State had no legal right to retain their money. Given the invalidity of the convictions, does the Exoneration Act afford sufficient process to enable the State to retain the money? Surely, it does not.
12  A successful petitioner under the Exoneration Act can recover reasonable attorney’s fees, §13–65–103(2)(e)(IV), but neither a defendant nor counsel is likely to assume the risk of loss when amounts to be gained are not worth the candle.
13  Colorado additionally argues that defendants can request a stay of sentence pending appeal, thereby reducing the risk of erroneous deprivation. See Brief for Respondent 32; §§16–12–103, 18–1.3–702(1)(a) (2016). But the State acknowledged at oral argument that few defendants can meet the requirements a stay pending appeal entails. Tr. of Oral Arg. 33–34. And even when a stay is available, a trial court “may require the defendant to deposit the whole or any part of the . . . costs.” Colo. App. Rule 8.1(a)(3) (2016).
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