April 20, 2017 4:00PM

Supreme Court Reaffirms the Presumption of Innocence

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided a relatively small but important case out of my home state of Colorado. Colorado, like many states, imposes certain monetary penalties and costs on convicted defendants. Those can include court costs, docket fees, and payments into victim restitution funds. What happens, however, if a defendant’s conviction is later overturned, either by a higher court or on a re-trial? Can the once-convicted defendants easily get their money back, as would seem to be only fair? Not in Colorado, which is (was) unique in requiring that exonerated defendants go to court again to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence before they could get their money back. Thankfully, the Supreme Court, in a 7-1 opinion (Justice Gorsuch only began participating in cases in the last two weeks), held that Colorado’s "Exoneration Act" violates the due process guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nelson v. Colorado is a combination of two different cases. One concerned Shannon Nelson, who was convicted by a jury of two felonies and three misdemeanors arising from the alleged sexual and physical abuse of her four children. Nelson conviction was reversed on appeal, however, and on retrial she was acquitted of all charges. In the course of her ordeal, Nelson paid $8,192.50 in costs and fees.

Louis Madden, the petitioner in the other case, was convicted of patronizing a child prostitute and third-degree sexual assault. His conviction was later overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court, and the state declined to retry the case. Madden paid the state $1,977.75 in the course of his legal troubles.

Although Madden and Nelson were innocent of their crimes in the eyes of the law--remember everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a legally proper trial (Cato’s brief in the case focused on the deep historical roots of the presumption of innocence)--they were faced with having to prove their innocence in a subsequent civil proceeding if they were to get their money back. Instead, they went all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was unconstitutional to require them to do anything more to prove their innocence.

Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made fairly short work of Colorado’s law. “The sole legal basis for these assessments was the fact of Nelson’s and Madden’s convictions,” she wrote, and “absent those convictions” Colorado has “no legal right to exact and retain petitioners’ funds.” Once the convictions were erased, “the presumption of their innocence was restored” and “Colorado may not presume a person adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.”

Justice Samuel Alito concurred in the result--he agreed that Colorado’s law was unconstitutional--but wrote separately to argue that the majority should have narrowed their opinion. Alito was concerned that the majority’s reasoning could be stretched too far. He posed an interesting question: “if the status quo ante must be restored, why shouldn’t the defendant be compensated for all the adverse consequences of the wrongful conviction?” For example, attorney’s fees, lost work, or harm to reputation?

The lone dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas, who provocatively argued, as he has many times, that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment conveys no substantive rights, such as the right to have your money back after having a conviction overturned. Any such substantive right must be granted by state law, argued Thomas, and that wasn’t the case here.

Because Colorado was the only state with such an "Exoneration Act," the Court’s ruling will have only limited effect. But for many former criminal defendants in Colorado, the ruling can help them get their money back and, perhaps, a little dignity too. More broadly, Nelson v. Colorado affirmed the importance of the presumption of innocence, which is a cornerstone of our system of justice.