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January 8, 2017

SCOTUS back in action with booking fee process as first notable criminal case of 2017

The Supreme Court returns to action tomorrow morning, and the Court's January sitting only has a couple cases that should be of serious interest to criminal justice fans.  But the very first case slated for the very first 2017 oral argument is one of procedural note, Nelson v. Colorado.  The folks over at SCOTUSblog have provided this preview by Steve Vladeck, which starts and ends this way:

Every jurisdiction in the United States requires at least some criminal defendants to make certain payments to the government tied to their convictions.  And if a defendant’s conviction is subsequently vacated — whether on appeal or through collateral post-conviction proceedings — virtually every jurisdiction directly returns those funds to the acquitted individual.  Colorado does not.  Instead, according to the Colorado Supreme Court, criminal defendants seeking a return of funds paid in conjunction with a later-vacated conviction must bring a separate civil suit under a Colorado statute — the Exoneration Act — in which, among other burdens, plaintiffs apparently have to prove their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover.  The very first argument the justices will hear in 2017 — Nelson v. Colorado — raises the question whether this seemingly unique scheme violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment....

Although it is often difficult to predict from an oral argument how the justices are likely to rule, the sharp distinctions in how the parties have framed the issue in this case may allow for more than the usual tea-leaf reading at next Monday’s argument.  The more the questioning focuses on distinctions between the different types of payments made by Nelson and Madden, and the state’s interest in collecting and preserving those funds, the more it may bode well for Colorado.  But the more the justices’ attention appears drawn to how poor a fit the Exoneration Act actually is for defendants like these, the more likely the court will be to reverse.  After all, as Nelson and Madden conclude in their reply brief, Colorado appears to be the first and only jurisdiction in the United States “to require successful appellants to prove their innocence by any standard to get their money back when their convictions are reversed.”  If that fact seems to trouble enough of the justices during their first argument of the new year, then a reversal may well be in the offing.

January 8, 2017 at 11:18 PM | Permalink


An outlier (see the discussion) that can have limited effect ... should have decent chance to result in a small win of basic principles of fairness.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 9, 2017 12:00:53 AM

Seems like a poorly written statute that includes refunds of fines and court costs as part of compensation for those found to be actually innocent combined with an opinion that gave that statute probably broader intent than legislature intended. I can't see it troubling the court to hold that, if a party is forced to make payments to the opposing party under an invalid judgment, they have a right to a refund. The question of required restitution to third parties might be a closer call.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 9, 2017 10:46:36 AM

Agree with Joe.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 9, 2017 4:10:54 PM

Fines are one thing, but doesn't anyone here find that any non-judicial order of payment made by defendants to be a bare-faced unconstitutional money-grab in the first place? This is not like the defendant has a choice in the matter of court jurisprudence, which should be paid by the state.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jan 10, 2017 12:55:48 PM

If I understand what is at issue in the case, all of the payments are court-ordered and flow from the judgments. While I am not sure it is a 100% uniform rule in every state, it's not unusual for either civil or criminal case for the losing party to have to pay certain court costs -- on the civil side typically pre-paid by plaintiff at time of filing, but reimbursed by defendant if plaintiff wins. Arguably, court costs are money grabs by the government (who could theoretically provide free access to courts to all parties in all cases). But if a finding of guilt is a prerequisite for the imposition of costs (and in many states, courts can waive costs for indigent defendants), then not sure that due process requires anything more.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 11, 2017 10:23:28 AM

Roberts at one point in the oral argument raised the possibility that part of the money here might be for court costs that can be non-refundable, but don't recall much made of the point.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 14, 2017 5:19:47 PM

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