Supreme Court Orders Restitution and Fees Must be Returned

Serious Crimes and Serious Sentences

In two separate cases Colorado juries convicted Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden of serious crimes.  For Shannon it was sexual abuse of her four children. The judge sentenced her to twenty years to life. He also ordered her to pay over $8,000 in restitution and court fees. In the case of Madden the charges were sexual assault and exploiting a child prostitute. The judge in his case sentenced him to an indeterminate prison sentence. Madden’s judge set his restitution and court costs at greater than $4,000.

Convictions Reversed Yet They Already Paid Fees

In both cases, however, the convictions were later reversed. In the case of Nelson, a court of appeals reversed the conviction and a second jury found her not guilty.  With Madden, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed one of his convictions and the trial court vacated the other one. The prosecutor decided not to retry him.

The problem for Nelson and Madden, however, is that they already paid a portion of their restitution and fees. While Nelson was serving the prison sentence she paid nearly $1,000 from her inmate account. Madden paid nearly $2,000 before the courts threw out his convictions.

Should They Get Their Money Back?

Both Nelson and Madden filed motions to have they money the spent on restitution and fees returned. Colorado has a law that says an innocent person who the court convicted can file a civil claim for compensation. Lawmakers probably designed the law  to help innocent people who went to jail based on a wrongful conviction. However, an innocent person can also seek reimbursement for restitution and fees he or she paid. To win this type of civil claim, the statute requires that defendants prove their innocence.

Nelson and Madden argued this was wrong. They said the State of Colorado should never have been able to collect the funds in the first place. The Supreme Court agreed. The Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to require people to have to prove their innocence to recoup money that the courts should never should have forced them to pay in the first place. In these cases the courts only imposed the restitution and fees based on convictions that turned out to be wrongful. This process shifted the burden of proof from the government to the defendants.

Burden of Proof is Sacrosanct

All of us know the concepts “innocent until proven guilty”  and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”. They are fundamental to our legal system. Courts are required to carry these concepts through to their logical conclusion. This is true even when the facts make this a complicated mission.  The burden of proof also applies even when the punishment is only monetary and not jail time. In this case, we think the Supreme Court made the right decision.  The Court did not allow Colorado to get away with imposing financial penalties against people who it did not convict with a crime.

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