SCOTUS Appears Ready To Return Fines To Exonerated Defendants

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The Supreme Court appeared skeptical of a Colorado state law that makes it difficult for defendants whose convictions are overturned to recoup lost monies during oral arguments Monday.

The case was occasioned in 2006 when Shannon Nelson was convicted of five charges of sexual assault. In addition to a lengthy prison term, the court required her to pay court costs and fees, totaling $702.10. Her conviction was later vacated by the Colorado Court of Appeals. At a retrial, Nelson was acquitted of all charges. After her exoneration, she filed a motion to recover the monies she had paid after her conviction. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled she was not entitled to a refund, because of a state law which requires her to prove her innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Nelson appealed to the Supreme Court, leaving the justices to decide whether Colorado’s scheme violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.

“When a judgment is reversed, a person who has paid money pursuant to the judgment is entitled to get the money back,” Nelson’s attorney, Stuart Banner, told the Court. “That’s common sense, and that has, unsurprisingly, been normal practice for centuries.” Banner is a legal historian and professor at UCLA School of Law. (RELATED: Utah Asks SCOTUS Not To Hear Polygamy Challenge From ‘Sister Wives’ Stars)

State solicitor general Frederick Yarger, who represented Colorado in the proceedings, made rather bold arguments in the state’s defense, asserting the monies did not belong to Nelson, and that the state was protected against her claim by sovereign immunity. State sovereign immunity protects state governments from civil judgements.

The justices met Yarger’s claims with skepticism.

“It’s money that’s conditioned on a valid conviction,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “And when that valid conviction goes away, it seems the most natural, obvious thing in the world to say that the state’s right to that money evaporates at exactly the same moment.”

Justice Stephen Breyer asked if the state could fine a convicted corporation $15 million “And then the state says, ‘By the way, why appeal?’” he said. “‘If you win, we’re not going to give you the money back.’”

“Now, there’s something wrong with that,” he added.

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