April 19, 2017, was a good day for individual due process rights thanks to the 7-1 decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Nelson v. Colorado. In this case, a Colorado jury found Shannon Nelson guilty on two felony and three misdemeanor charges. As a result , the trial court ordered Nelson to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fees and restitution. Nelson then appealed and the convictions were later overturned. At the conclusion of a second trial, Nelson was acquitted on all charges.
Most people would probably assume that after the acquittal, the State of Colorado quickly refunded Nelson’s money. However, that was not the case. Instead, Colorado said that in order for Nelson to get his money back — he had to file a civil suit and prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was actually innocent. This requirement pretty much annihilated the presumption of innocence while creating a difficult and expensive process for recovering forfeited money.
Fortunately for Nelson, we still have due process rights under the 14th amendment. In analyzing this situation, the Supreme Court concluded that the presumption of innocence was restored when the conviction was erased. Therefore, it was violation of due process for Colorado to impose an obligation on Nelson to prove his innocence. More specifically, the presumption of innocence means that a person who can’t prove his or her “actual innocence” isn’t any less innocent than one who can. Accordingly, the Due Process Clause prohibits a state government from making a person who was not convicted go through “anything more than minimal procedures” to get their money or property back.
In doing so, the Supreme Court rejected Colorado’s argument that the “presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials,” and not a civil action to recover fines or restitution wrongly paid. According to the majority, a person “who has not been abjudged guilty of any crime may not be punished.”Hopefully this decision will help establish a firewall that protects individuals against abusive government forfeiture practices.
Perhaps the only negative to come out of this opinion is the fact that it was not unanimous. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented based on what we see as some pretty dubious reasoning. While he agreed that if the petitioners had never been convicted, Colorado could not have required them to pay the money at issue — it was his opinion that once the state has taken the money, it was Colorado’s money and there was no right to due process.