WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday 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.
The justices were helped by the forthright presentation of the state’s solicitor general, Frederick R. 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 in order to obtain reimbursement. But Mr. 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.
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,” he said. “You just can’t do it, but you can give them the money back.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer tried another example, asking about a corporation convicted of a crime and fined $15 million. “And then the state says, ‘By the way, why appeal?’” he said. “‘If you win, we’re not going to give you the money back.’”
“Now, there’s something wrong with that,” Justice Breyer added.
Mr. Yarger did not retreat. “This is a question of whether the state has decided to provide this kind of compensation,” he said.
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 their trial courts lacked authority to compensate them. Under the state’s law, the State Supreme Court said, they had to file a new civil suit and meet a heightened burden of proof.
Stuart Banner, a lawyer for Ms. Nelson and Mr. Madden, said the state’s approach amounted to “charging people money for the privilege of trying them unlawfully.”
The Colorado law’s requirement that people whose convictions are overturned hire a lawyer and pay a filing fee to start a new lawsuit, he said, “virtually ensures that successful appellants aren’t going to get their money back when their convictions are reversed.”
Mr. Yarger, the state’s lawyer, said the case, Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15-1256, turned on a single question. If the money belongs to the state, he said, it can decide whether and how to offer compensation. “This is the state’s money,” he said.
If, on the other hand, the money continues to belong to the defendants, Mr. Yarger said, the state has to offer a simple way to reclaim it.
This, too, appeared to clarify the case for the court. “So it really all does depend on whether we think it’s their money or it’s your money,” Justice Elena Kagan told Mr. Yarger.
Were the Supreme Court to decide the money continues to belong to the defendants, Mr. Yarger said, the burden on them to reclaim it “would be fairly minimal.”
“It would involve, perhaps, a motion filed in the district court,” he said. “I think the only burden that could, perhaps, be placed on a criminal defendant would be proving the amounts that were, in fact, taken from the defendant, and then there would have — there could be, for example, time limits put in place.”
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