Justices Skeptical of CO Wrongful Conviction Law

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The Supreme Court yesterday seemed deeply skeptical of a Colorado law that makes it hard for criminal defendants whose convictions are overturned to get refunds of the fines and restitution they had been ordered to pay, reports the New York Times. The state’s solicitor general, Frederick Yarger, who did not shy away from the more extreme implications of his argument. Money taken from defendants after valid convictions belongs to the state, he said.

A Colorado law requires people cleared by the courts to file separate civil suits and prove their innocence with clear and convincing evidence to obtain reimbursement. Yarger said the state was under no obligation to do even that much. He said the state was not only free to impose onerous procedures, but could also enact a law making exonerated defendants forfeit the money entirely. Incarceration is different from money, Chief Justice John Roberts said. “You can’t give them back whatever time they’ve spent in jail,” he said. “You just can’t do it, but you can give them the money back.” The Colorado law was challenged by Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, who had been ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fees and restitution after they were convicted of sex offenses. After their convictions were overturned, they filed motions in their criminal cases seeking refunds of what they had paid. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against them, saying that trial courts lacked authority to compensate them. Stuart Banner, a lawyer for Nelson and Madden, said the state’s approach amounted to “charging people money for the privilege of trying them unlawfully.”

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