Fines & Fees Before The United States Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Nelson v. Colorado, a case asking if courts are required to refund the fees paid by those convicted of crimes and then exonerated. From the Associated Press:  “The case involves two people whose convictions for sexual offenses were later thrown out. One had paid about $700 toward the court fees and victim restitution while the other paid more than $4,400 in similar costs.”

The defendants are challenging a Colorado Supreme Court decision that “the defendants could not get a refund unless they proved their innocence by clear and convincing evidence in a separate proceeding.”  The Associated Press story goes on to say,”[m]ost justices hearing arguments in the case on Monday seemed concerned that refusing to refund the money violates due process rights.” Justice Elena Kagan said “it seems ‘the most natural, obvious thing in the world to say that the state’s right to that money evaporates’ when a conviction is overturned.”

Chief Justice John Roberts also said that “while the state can’t give the defendants back the time they spent in jail, ‘you can give them the money back.’”

Adam Liptak wrote for The New York Times:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked if the state could impose a $10,000 fine on everyone convicted of a crime and refuse to return the money if the convictions were later overturned.

Mr. Yarger said yes. Just as there is no need to pay people for the time they spend in prison after their convictions are reversed, he said, there is no need to reimburse them for fines and fees. “The assumption is that the deprivation of both the liberty and the property at the time of conviction is lawful, and that the property passes into public funds,” he said.

Incarceration is different from money, Chief Justice Roberts said. “You can’t give them back whatever time they’ve spent in jail … you just can’t do it, but you can give them the money back.” After the arguments before the Supreme Court, changes may occur regardless of the outcome of the decision.

And, David Migoya had this front page article in The Denver Post: “Colorado official proposes refunds for exonerated defendants after harsh questions by Supreme Court; U.S. Supreme Court hears appeal on state’s rule requiring lawsuits to get money back.” 

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