April 19, 2017

United States Supreme Court Decides Nelson v. Colorado

On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15-1256, holding that Colorado’s Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons statute (Exoneration Act), which requires petitioners whose felony criminal convictions have been invalidated to demonstrate their actual innocence by “clear and convincing” evidence before recovering costs, fees, and restitution exacted from them in connection with their convictions, violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

Two former criminal defendants whose convictions had been invalidated filed post-conviction motions for the return of funds they had been required to pay after conviction. On appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court denied relief, ruling that the funds had become the property of the State and that the exclusive means of relief available was a petition under the Exoneration Act, which neither defendant had filed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Colorado’s statutory scheme deprived the petitioners of due process under the three-part balancing test established by Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). The Court concluded that, with their constitutional presumption of innocence restored, the petitioners had a clear property interest in money that was taken from them solely by virtue of their criminal convictions. The Court also determined that several features of the Exoneration Act created an undue risk of erroneous deprivation, most notably the mismatch between the State’s criminal burden of proof and the statute’s requirement that a petitioner provide “clear and convincing” evidence of his or her actual innocence. Finally, the Court noted that Colorado had identified no countervailing government interest in retaining funds to which the State had no claim of right. The Court therefore held the statute unconstitutional on its face, ruling that no state may impose “anything more than minimal procedures” on a petitioner’s right to obtain a refund of money extracted as a result of criminal conviction.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito concurred only in the judgment. Justice Thomas dissented. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the decision.

Download Opinion of the Court

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