Tag: Presumption of Innocence

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.”

Take Your Stinking Paws Off My Benjamins You Damn Dirty Statist

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is not quite as memorable as Charlton Heston’s famous line from Planet of the Apes, but it certainly captures my sentiments after reading an article in Slate that calls for the elimination of the $100 bill. The author, Timothy Noah, says that large bills are only for “criminals and sociopaths.” Here’s the crux of his argument.

…why does the U.S. continue to print C-notes…? Technological change has reduced much further the plausible need of any law-abiding American to carry a C-note in his wallet or to stash a pile of C-notes in his mattress.

Noah’s argument is unconvincing for several reasons. First, he is underestimating the degree to which “law-abiding” Americans use “Benjamins.”  And with higher inflation almost certainly around the corner, one can safely expect that $100 bills will become even more common in the future. Second, his entire argument rests on the statist assumption that government should restrict honest people because this will somehow make life more difficult for criminals. Yet he debunks his own anti-money laundering argument by noting that the government already has stopped printing larger bills, such as the $500 note. Has that stopped the drug trade? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

Like much of what government does, the campaign against money laundering is a costly exercise with very few tangible benefits. This video examines the cost-benefit issues.

I actually think the moral arguments against anti-money laundering laws are even more powerful. As Americans, we should have a presumption of innocence in our daily lives. What business is it of government whether we want to carry $20 bills or $100 bills? And think about the implications of these laws. What if the government said we need to ban cars, or put government-monitored homing devices in all vehicles, because bank robbers occasionally use automobiles as getaway vehicles? In this case, there is a theoretical benefit to the policy, just like there is a somewhat plausible case for anti-money laundering laws, but presumably we would reject such a policy as too intrusive.

Anti-money laundering laws are a classic case of bad policy leading to more bad policy. The government passes drug laws that create huge profits for criminals. But rather than getting rid of victimless crimes, the government imposes policies that make life more difficult and costly for everyone else.