Says States Cannot Keep Money From The Innocent

by Marty Carlson


Last month United States Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that forced criminal defendants to prove their innocence when the defendant’s convictions were already overturned. The court explained, “absent those convictions, Colorado would have no legal right to extract and retain the petitioner’s funds.” The court’s ruling in Nelson V. Colorado could have major ramifications for government shakedown schemes nationwide.

The case arose after two defendants, Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, were convicted for sexual offenses in order to pay thousands of dollars in court because, fees and restitution. Between the conviction and later acquittal, the state withheld $702 from Nelson’s inmate account, while Madden paid Colorado $1,977 after his conviction. When the convictions were overturned Nelson and Madden demanded their money back.

Although a state appellate court sided with them, the Colorado Supreme Court denied their refund requests. Instead the court ruled that Nelson and Madden could reclaim their money only through the states exoneration act which requires filing a civil claim improving the person was actually innocent of the crime for which he or he was convicted.

A public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, noted in an amicus brief, the presumption of innocence has “a deep historical root and can be traced back not only through American jurisprudence but through English common law, Roman law and even to the Pentateuch.” Also, saying that presumption is a critical safeguard against the justice system where individuals can be subjected to arbitrary and irrational deprivations of their liberty and property.

In a 7-1 ruling United States Supreme Court ruled that Colorado’s law was unconstitutional. Justice Ruth Ginsburg stated “the exoneration acts scheme does not comport with the 14th amendment’s guarantee of due process. Nelson and Madden are entitled to be presumed innocent and should not be saddled with any proof of burden to regain what is rightfully theirs.”

Ginsburg forcefully rejected Colorado’s argument that the presumption of innocence only applies criminal trials, and not to civil claims, as under the exoneration act.

With this ruling the Nelson decision may set an important precedent to rain in another abusive civil proceeding called civil forfeiture. The parallels are striking. Through civil forfeiture, law enforcement can confiscate and keep cash, cars in real estate without securing a criminal conviction or filing charges against the owner. Perversely under civil forfeiture, even those not found guilty in criminal court can still forfeit their property in civil court, since the latter has a lower standard of proof.

According to the Institute for Justice proceedings in over 30 states and on the federal level, the burden of proof is on the property owner, not the government. When police seize property, the owner must prove they did not know her consent to the property being used for an alleged criminal activity. That turns a presumption of innocence straight on its head.

For some time now the courts have repeatedly upheld civil forfeiture laws, in 2014 the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving a Chevy Silverado that belonged to a gentleman who no longer physically owned the vehicle but still held title to it and it was registered in his name. When the driver was arrested for DUI and drug possession, police seize the truck and filed a civil forfeiture action against it, even though the registered owner was not involved. In order to regain his Chevy, Allie would have to prove his innocence.

Currently there are 12 states that require a criminal conviction for most or all forfeiture cases, while Utah has been forfeiting property from the acquitted.

Several bills have made it through Congress that would reform federal forfeiture laws so the property owners are innocent until proven guilty. And Justice Clarence Thomas recently slammed civil forfeiture for his egregious and well chronicled abuses.

Also, Justice Willett it stated, “our Constitution was written precisely to prevent carte blanche assertions of governmental power, to prevent please power from devolving into police state.”