In an interesting decision released last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a criminal defendant who wins on appeal is entitled to a refund of the court costs paid in conjunction with the conviction. The name of the case is Nelson v. Colorado.
The case involved two defendants who were convicted of sex crimes in Colorado. Shannon Nelson was found guilty by a jury of sexually and physically abusing her four kids. The judge sentenced her to serve 20 years to life in prison and ordered her to pay $8,192.50 in restitution, fees, and costs. The Colorado Department of Corrections removed more than $700 from her canteen account and applied it toward the money she owed. On appeal, Nelson’s convictions were reversed and at her second trial she was found not guilty of all charges. In an unrelated case, Louis Alonzo Madden was found guilty of attempted third-degree sexual assault and attempting to patronize a prostituted child. He received an intermediate prison sentence and was ordered to pay $4,413 in costs, fees, and restitution. His convictions were subsequently either vacated or reversed and the State chose not to retry the case. Following his convictions, Madden paid nearly $2,000 toward the money he was assessed. After their convictions were invalidated, both defendants asked Colorado to refund the money they had paid pursuant to their sentencing orders. The Colorado Court of Appeals agreed they should get their money back, but the Colorado Supreme Court reversed, holding the defendants were required to seek the return of the money by filing claims pursuant to the state Exoneration Act. The defendants appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled the defendants’ money must be returned to them.
Colorado argued it was entitled to keep the defendants’ money because their convictions were intact at the time the money was paid. The Court quickly rejected this insane argument and pointed out that once the convictions were reversed or vacated, the defendants were once again presumed to be innocent of the charges. The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision would require the defendants to go to court, under the Exoneration Act, and prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence. However, if the presumption of innocence was restored once the convictions were thrown out, it would violate the defendants’ due process rights to force them to return to court to prove their innocence.
One justice dissented and, unsurprisingly, that justice was Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas concluded the defendants had not established a substantive entitlement to recover the money they had paid in connection with their convictions, and the defendants had the right to attempt to recover their money pursuant to the Exoneration Act. According to Justice Thomas, the money the defendants paid to the State when their convictions were still valid belongs to the State.
This is an important decision for anyone who has had a conviction reversed. Court costs, fees, and restitution can total thousands of dollars that now must be returned to the defendant who paid pursuant to a sentence imposed on an invalid conviction. If your conviction has been reversed and you already paid court fees, you should contact a criminal defense attorney.