In the

Supreme Court of the United States






Does a criminal defendant have a constitutional right to an automatic, unqualified monetary judgment against the State for amounts paid pursuant to a conviction that is later invalidated?



Petitioners were convicted of sexual crimes against children, sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and ordered to pay various costs and fees. They were also ordered to pay restitution for the losses their victims suffered. Although they had the right to do so, they did not contest their restitution orders.

While in prison, Petitioners paid a portion of their costs, fees, and restitution. Their convictions were subsequently invalidated on direct appeal or in post­-conviction proceedings, and they sought refunds for the amounts they had paid. The state courts denied them relief because no Colorado statute grants automatic refunds in these circumstances; instead, state law provides full compensation for criminal defendants who are innocent of wrongdoing.

Here, Petitioners assert that the Due Process Clause grants criminal defendants an automatic right to compensation for monetary amounts paid pursuant to convictions that are later overturned.

I.      Factual and procedural background.

Petitioner Nelson. Nelson was charged with subjecting her four minor children to aggravated incest, sexual assault, and child abuse over a five-year period. The arrest­ warrant affidavit alleged that the children had disclosed the abuse in recorded forensic interviews.

Nelson was appointed counsel. At the preliminary hearing, the court found probable cause on all counts. After a year of motions hearings and discovery, the court held a nine-day trial that included the testimony of 14 witnesses and the child-victims. The forensic interviews, which were played to the jury, provided evidence that Nelson had forced her children to engage in sexual acts and had beaten them. The jury convicted Nelson on five counts of sex assault, aggravated incest, and child abuse.

The court sentenced Nelson to a prison term and ordered her to pay court costs, fees, and restitution. The purpose of the restitution order was to pay for mental health therapy for Nelson's children. Nelson did not contest the order and while she was incarcerated, the prison withheld about $700 from her inmate account to pay toward her balance.

After Nelson was convicted, the prosecution charged Nelson's brother and his wife with sexually assaulting the children in concert with Nelson. Those cases proceeded separately. Nelson's brother pleaded guilty in People v. Roy Nelson; he did not appeal. His wife's jury-trial conviction, which resulted in a sentence of 32 years to life in prison, was affirmed on appeal.

On direct appeal of Nelson's conviction, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial because the trial court had allowed the prosecution to call an unendorsed expert witness. On retrial, which occurred seven years after the alleged crimes took place, Nelson was acquitted on all counts, and the court entered a judgment of acquittal.

Eight months later, Nelson filed a motion in her criminal case asking for return of the funds withheld from her inmate account. The trial court denied Nelson's motion, concluding that none of the funds had been "wrongfully taken" because at the time they were withdrawn from her inmate account, Nelson had been convicted and her conviction had not yet been reversed. The court found that the restitution had already been disbursed to pay for the children's mental health therapy and concluded that it lacked authority to order the prosecution to repay those amounts.

Petitioner Madden. Madden was charged with attempted patronizing of a prostituted child, attempted third-degree sexual assault, and attempted sexual assault on a child. The arrest-warrant affidavit alleged that Madden propositioned a 14-year-old girl who was a passenger on the trolley he was driving, then pinned her against a window and sexually assaulted her. When he was arrested, he allegedly confessed to the crime.

Madden was appointed counsel. At the preliminary hearing, the trial court found probable cause on the first two counts but dismissed the third count. After a three-day trial at which the victim and several witnesses testified, Madden was convicted and sentenced to prison. He was ordered to pay costs, fees, and surcharges, as well as $910 in restitution to cover the victim's mental health therapy expenses. He did not challenge the restitution order and ultimately paid approximately $2,000 toward his total balance.

On direct appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the conviction for attempted patronizing but reversed the attempted sexual assault conviction. The Colorado Supreme Court came to the opposite conclusion, affirming Madden's attempted sexual assault conviction but reversing the attempted patronizing count. On remand, the trial court imposed a three-year prison sentence with credit for time served.

Madden then filed a post-conviction motion, alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel. After a hearing, the court found that significant, properly admitted evidence pointed to Madden's guilt. But the court reversed the conviction because Madden's attorney committed various errors during trial, including introducing damaging testimony about Madden's previous sexual behavior. Madden had by then served his sentence of incarceration, and the district attorney elected not to appeal the order or retry the case.

Madden requested a refund of the approximately $2,000 in costs, fees, and restitution that he had paid. After a hearing, the trial court ordered that the costs and fees be refunded, but denied the motion as to restitution, which had already been distributed to pay for counseling services for the victim. P

B.          Decisions of the Colorado Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

Colorado Court of Appeals. Both Petitioners appealed the denial, or partial denial, of their refund motions. The court of appeals reversed in both cases.

In Nelson, the court of appeals held that a defendant whose conviction is overturned on appeal is entitled to a return of monetary amounts paid pursuant to that conviction, if the defendant is subsequently acquitted or the prosecution declines to retry the case. The court concluded that this compensation must include restitution that "has already been disbursed to third parties." Although the court acknowledged that its decision implicated public policy issues within the province of the legislature, it nonetheless remanded the case for the trial court to "consider on the merits" Nelson's motion for refund. 

In Madden, the court of appeals adhered to the Nelson decision, explaining that its holding applied both to convictions overturned on direct appeal and to convictions invalidated during post-conviction proceedings.

Colorado Supreme Court. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed in both cases."

In Nelson, the majority reasoned that "just as a court must follow statutory commands in imposing and disbursing fees, the court may authorize refunds from public funds only pursuant to statutory authority." The court explained that "none of the statutes governing costs, fees, and restitution address whether a court may withdraw money from public funds to refund money that a defendant has already paid." Reading those statutes to permit such refunds, the court explained, would "intrude on the legislature's powers."

The court observed, however, that a separate Colorado statute does provide a mechanism for criminal defendants to seek reimbursement: a defendant may obtain compensation through the Colorado Exoneration Act, which "specifically addresses when a defendant who was wrongfully convicted may seek a refund of costs, fees, and restitution." Because Nelson did not file a claim under the Exoneration Act, "the trial court lacked the authority to order a refund of Nelson's costs, fees, and restitution based on her motion following her criminal trial."

The majority rejected Nelson's claim that "due process required an automatic refund of costs and fees that she had paid." The court explained that the money withheld from Nelson's prison account "was not wrongfully withheld because a conviction supported the imposition of costs, fees, and restitution" and that "Nelson was obligated to pay only while her conviction was in place, and this obligation was imposed pursuant to a valid statute." Because "due process does not require a defendant to be compensated automatically for the time she spent incarcerated," it likewise "does not require an automatic refund." The compensation mechanism made available by the Exoneration Act, the court held, "provides sufficient process for defendants to seek a refund of costs, fees, and restitution that they incurred while a conviction was in place."

One justice dissented, arguing that Colorado trial courts have authority to order refunds through the doctrine of "ancillary jurisdiction." He further contended that the Exoneration Act does not provide sufficient process for defendants in Nelson's situation because the Act "is not geared toward refunds" and "provides a different remedy."

In Madden, the majority adhered to its companion opinion in Nelson. It did not address any due process arguments, because Madden did not raise them. The same justice who dissented in Nelson wrote a dissent in Madden, reiterating his reasoning.

III. The Colorado Exoneration Act.

Colorado's Exoneration Act provides a civil remedy through which exonerated persons may obtain compensation from the State. The Act is funded by general-fund appropriations allocated to the judicial department.

To establish exoneration, the district court must find that the defendant was actually innocent of the relevant crimes and did not participate in them. A court may not reach a finding of actual innocence if the conviction was reversed or vacated because of legal insufficiency or a legal error unrelated to actual innocence. A person is likewise ineligible for compensation if he or she committed or suborned perjury during proceedings related to the case. COLO.

The statute provides successful claimants compensation for each year of incarceration, as well as for any fine, penalty, court costs, or restitution paid as a result of the wrongful conviction. It also includes a fee-shifting provision, providing reasonable attorney fees for bringing a successful claim.



         I.          Petitioners' constitutional claim, although couched in procedural terms, depends on the assumption that criminal defendants have a substantive due process right to an automatic, unqualified judgment against the State for monetary amounts paid pursuant to an overturned conviction. Yet Petitioners neither clearly describe the contours of that claimed substantive right nor establish that it is deeply rooted in historical tradition. They have therefore failed to establish that the substantive due process doctrine grants them the right they seek to enforce in this case.

         II.        Petitioners' claim also fails under the analysis that applies to questions of procedural due process.

                                                                                      A.   The procedural claim at issue here is governed by Medina v. California. Petitioners seek to mandate, as part of the criminal process, a compensatory mechanism for criminal defendants whose convictions are overturned. Because the Medina-Patterson test applies to procedures within the criminal process, it governs this case.

                                                                                      B.   Petitioners' claim fails the Medina-Patterson test. There was no settled historical right to an automatic, unqualified monetary judgment against the State any time a criminal defendant's conviction was overturned, and the procedures of Colorado's Exoneration Act do not offend fundamental fairness in operation.

         C.        The Petitioners' claim fails for three reasons. First, because Petitioners' right to compensation is contingent and equitable, the State need only provide them an ordinary judicial process such as a civil action for damages. Second, Colorado minimizes the risk that criminal defendants will be inequitably deprived of property or liberty through numerous pre- and post-deprivation procedures. These procedures are effective, as statistics from Colorado's judicial branch demonstrate. Third, Colorado has an interest in ensuring that compensation paid to criminal defendants comports with notions of equity. The Exoneration Act serves that interest; Petitioners' claimed automatic right to compensation does not.

III. Petitioners' other miscellaneous arguments are flawed. First, Petitioners' characterization of modern practice is inaccurate, and they cannot demonstrate the sort of overwhelming consensus in favor of their position that would require setting aside the standard due process analysis. Second, Petitioners' reliance on cases decided in the tax context ignore that, in those cases, the government denied any pre­deprivation process. Those cases do not apply to the criminal context, in which defendants' rights are protected by numerous specialized procedures. Third, Colorado bears the burden to prove criminal liability beyond a reasonable doubt. Petitioners' argument to the contrary fails to distinguish between criminal trials and procedures for awarding compensation to criminal defendants. Fourth, the monetary assessments at issue here cannot all be described as fines or penalties. They each serve distinct purposes unrelated to criminal punishment. Most significantly, Petitioners fail to recognize the unique nature of restitution, for which Petitioners' proposed automatic refunds are particularly inappropriate.



The judgment of the Colorado Supreme Court should be affirmed.