Nelson v. Colorado

PETITIONER: Shannon Nelson and Louis Alonzo Madden
LOCATION: Colorado Supreme Court

DOCKET NO.: 15-1256
LOWER COURT: Colorado Supreme Court

GRANTED: Sep 29, 2016
ARGUED: Jan 09, 2017

Frederick R. Yarger - for the respondent
Stuart Banner - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

The state of Colorado, like most states, imposes certain monetary penalties upon persons convicted of a crime. Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden were both separately arrested and charged with sexual assault crimes. Nelson was acquitted of all charges, and Madden was acquitted of one of two charges against him. Both requested refunds from the state for the penalties they had been charged, since their convictions were overturned. The trial court determined it lacked jurisdiction in Nelson’s case and only returned the funds taken from Madden in connection with the one charge on which he was acquitted. The Colorado Court of Appeals found that the state must refund the money Nelson and Madden had paid respective to their sexual assault charges that had been thrown out. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the decisions in both cases and held that,  under the state’s Exoneration Act, an individual may only recover monetary losses from an arrest if they can “prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that [they were] ‘actually innocent.’”


Does the state of Colorado’s refusal to refund money from persons exonerated from convictions unless they can “prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that [they were] ‘actually innocent’” violate the Due Process Clause?

Media for Nelson v. Colorado

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 09, 2017 in Nelson v. Colorado

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Case 15-1256, Nelson v. Colorado. Mr. Banner.

Stuart Banner:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: When a judgment is reversed, a person who has paid money pursuant to the judgment is entitled to get the money back.

That's common sense, and that has, unsurprisingly, been normal practice for centuries. As far as we can tell, Colorado is the first State ever to adopt a rule to the contrary.

In Colorado now, when a judgment of conviction is reversed, the State keeps the defendant's money unless the defendant files a separate civil action and can prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that she's actually innocent.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

What is the basis of -- of the right? You said the person whose conviction is overturned has a right to get the money back.

Is it a constitutional right? What kind of right is it?

Stuart Banner:

It's -- it's a right under the common law of property that's existed for centuries; that it has always been the case that a successful appellant gets her money back. In this case, the money was taken from Shannon Nelson and Lewis Madden pursuant to criminal convictions, but --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

It has to be -- it -- it has to be constitutional if Colorado says we don't want to follow the common law.

This is not the law here.

Stuart Banner:

Well, but -- but here --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

So -- so if it's not constitutional, then -- then what's the -- what's the basis for -- for your case?

Stuart Banner:


So here, the Colorado supreme court did not say that this money belongs to the State of Colorado.

Rather, the Colorado supreme court said the Exoneration Act is a good enough remedy for returning the money to Nelson and Madden. You're absolutely right, though, to say that if the Colorado supreme court had said it doesn't matter what process we use because it's not their property, it's the State's property.

If the Colorado supreme court had said that, then you're right.

Then we would be having to say -- making an argument that the Constitution itself gives the money -- gives a right to the money to Nelson and --

Sonia Sotomayor:

Make that argument.

Stuart Banner:

Excuse me?

Sonia Sotomayor:

Make that argument.

Stuart Banner:


So if -- if Colorado -- if the Colorado supreme court had said that this money belongs to the State rather than to Nelson and Madden -- Madden, that would be tantamount to charging people money for the privilege of trying them unlawfully. Right? It would be the State taking money as a result of a trial that has been reversed, a trial that was conducted unlawfully.

That would --

Sonia Sotomayor:

The dissent here said something quite simple, which was the only entitlement to the money was the conviction.

Stuart Banner:


Sonia Sotomayor:

If the conviction has been voided, then what legal right does the State have to retain the money?

Stuart Banner:

We agree with that exactly.

Sonia Sotomayor:

The Colorado supreme court, on the other hand, said when you paid the money, we were entitled to it.

So where -- there's a disconnect there. If they were entitled to it initially, we're still back to the operative question of why are they entitled? What is the constitutional right for you to get it back?

Stuart Banner:

The State was entitled to the money initially because there were judgments of conviction in place, judgments of conviction that required the payment of the money.

Those judgments of conviction no longer exist.

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