Fines and restitution may be imposed following a criminal conviction in conjunction with the sentence imposed.


Fines are commonly imposed in all criminal cases. The amount that may be imposed is generally determined by statute or at the discretion of the court. Fines are paid to a governmental entity.


Restitution, on the other hand, is paid to the victim of a crime for whatever losses, either physical or monetary, that they suffered as a result of the crime against them.


Fines and restitution are more often referred to as “monetary penalties.”


Refund of Monetary Penalties After Reversal of Conviction


Most states and the federal government have historically refunded monetary penalties to criminal defendants who have their convictions reversed on direct appeal or through post-conviction proceedings. That rule made sense. No one should reasonably expect a defendant to pay a fine or restitution for an invalid conviction.


In 2013, the State of Colorado opted out of this historical practice when its lawmakers enacted “Compensation For Certain Exonerated Persons” legislation. As we pointed out in an April 14, 2017 post, the purpose of this legislation is to provide compensation in a narrow range of cases in which a convicted individual establishes actual innocence of the crime for which he or she was convicted.


Colorado Requires Acquitted Individuals to Prove Actual Innocence


With this legislation, Colorado joined the federal government and 27 states that have laws on the books providing for compensation to wrongfully convicted persons.


Colorado lawmakers, however, wanted to make sure that only “actually innocent” individuals could be compensated. Individuals acquitted following a jury trial or who had their convictions reversed on appeal because of a procedural or constitutional error are not eligible for compensation under the exoneration act.


The legislation creates a difficult process for recovery of compensation by anyone wrongfully convicted in a Colorado court. If the innocent individual manages to overcome the hurdles weighing against compensation, he or she is then entitled to a graduated scale of compensation depending upon the nature of conviction.


With respect to any monetary penalties imposed with the sentence, the exoneration legislation provides that a wrongfully convicted individual is entitled to recover “the amount of any fine, penalty, court costs, or restitution imposed and paid by the exonerated person as a result of his or her conviction.”


U.S. Supreme Court Hears Case


The Supreme Court accepted a pair of cases this Term to address the issue of whether the exoneration legislation was intended to be independent from the traditional rule to refund money paid to a reversed judgment; that is, whether the legislation created new rights for exonerated individuals or whether lawmakers specifically intended for the legislation to abrogate the traditional refund rule.


Both the cases involve defendants in this case were convicted of sexual assault-related offenses: Louis Madden was convicted of attempt to patronize a child prostitute while Shannon Nelson was convicted of  sexual assault offenses against her children. Both defendants were assessed significant penalties, fees, and restitution orders associated with their convictions. Nelson’s conviction was reversed on direct appeal and she was acquitted following a retrial. Madden’s convictions were also reversed on direct appeal and in post-conviction proceedings. The State elected not to retry him.


Both defendants sought a refund of the monetary penalties paid as a result of their wrongful convictions. The Colorado Supreme Court, however, rebuffed those refund efforts, finding that neither the exoneration act nor due process of law allowed the defendants to secure a refund from the State absent a showing of actual innocence.


Due Process Require Refund After Reversal


The essential issue the Supreme Court was asked to decide was whether due process accommodates a recovery system that places the burden on the individual to prove their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover from a reversed judgment. This burden also entails a responsibility of the individual to hire his or her own attorney to pursue recovery which, more often than not, will cost more than the actual monetary damages paid pursuant to their conviction.


On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court rendered its verdict. Justice Ginsburg  spoke to that verdict:


“When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and a consequence of, the conviction? Our answer is yes. Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and provers her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process …


“Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interests in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is

Unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question. To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.”


We cannot fathom how the Colorado Supreme Court arrived at the opposite conclusion. We can only be thankful that the Supreme Court reversed them.