Shannon Nelson and Louis Alonzo Madden v. Colorado

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Shannon Nelson and Louis Alonzo Madden v. Colorado.


Is Colorado’s requirement that defendants must prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence after reversal of conviction of a crime, in order to have various monetary penalties returned to them, consistent with due process?

Oral argument: 
January 9, 2017
Court below: 

This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to decide the constitutionality of a statute requiring a defendant to initiate a civil case to obtain reimbursement of costs, fees, and restitution after the reversal of conviction of a crime. This case arises out of Shannon Nelson’s conviction for sexual assault, which was overturned after she served prison time and paid various fees. The Colorado Supreme Court found that due process did not require a refund because a defendant could receive compensation by filing a civil suit under the Exoneration Act. Nelson argues that Colorado’s requirement improperly places the burden of proof on the defendant to prove his or her innocence in order to recover fees paid for a conviction that was later overturned. Colorado asserts that Nelson did not necessarily have an automatic right to the refund of her criminal penalties and that, even if she did, Colorado’s requirement satisfies due process. This case poses questions about a state’s ability to affect the presumption of innocence through statutes that influence the scope of due process.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Colorado, like many states, imposes various monetary penalties when a person is convicted of a crime. But Colorado appears to be the only state that does not refund these penalties when a conviction is reversed. Rather, Colorado requires defendants to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence in a separate civil proceeding to get their money back. The Question Presented is whether this requirement is consistent with due process.


Petitioner Shannon Nelson was convicted in 2006 of sexual assault offenses against her children for which she began serving a prison term and incurred monetary charges, which the state of Colorado imposes on defendants who have been convicted. Nelson was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison and also ordered to pay a total of $8,192.50 in fees and restitution. On appeal, because the trial court had allowed an unendorsed expert witness to be called, a new trial was ordered. Seven years after the alleged crimes, Nelson was acquitted during the retrial. She filed a motion seeking a refund of the charges incurred as a result of her initial conviction. Nelson argued that failure to return the money would constitute a violation of due process under the Constitution. The trial court determined that it could not return the funds to her because it did not possess the authority to compel the state to return the funds.

Similarly, Petitioner Louis Alonzo Madden was convicted of attempting to patronize a prostituted child as well as attempted sexual assault. Madden received a prison sentence in addition to fees associated with his conviction. Madden’s conviction for attempted sexual assault was later vacated, and his conviction of attempting to patronize was reversed. Madden made a motion for a return of the fees and restitution, arguing that failure to return the money was a denial of due process. The fees were returned by the trial court, but Madden was denied restitution.

The Colorado Court of Appeals determined in both cases that state law required the state to return all of the money that Nelson and Madden had paid. It determined that without valid convictions, Nelson and Madden were entitled to the funds that they had paid. Further, the Court did not require the filing of a civil litigation in order to recover the funds. The Court indicated that parties should be returned to the “status quo” and receive a refund. Further, the Court of Appeals indicated that the refund should be issued by the state because it was Colorado’s actions that lead to the wrongful payment.

The Colorado Supreme Court eventually reversed both. It reasoned that Colorado’s Exoneration Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-65-101 to 103, was authorized by the judiciary as the exclusive remedy for the refunds. The Colorado Supreme Court rejected the argument that due process requires a refund, indicating that the Exoneration Act provided a sufficient avenue through which a remedy could be sought. The Colorado Supreme Court determined that due process does not require funds to be automatically repaid, just as it does not require a defendant to be compensated for incarceration while awaiting an appeal.



Nelson and Madden argue that Colorado’s recovery scheme improperly places the burden of proof on the defendant. . Nelson and Madden assert that at its most fundamental level, due process requires the state to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, granting the defendant a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. Nelson and Madden reiterate the basic principle that the state is not allowed to shift this burden. Nelson and Madden are of the opinion that shifting this burden at all is unconstitutional because a defendant must be free of all consequences unless the state meets its burden. Furthermore, they continue that Colorado’s requiring a defendant to prove his innocence by clear and convincing evidence is far too heavy a burden, even in the event that the Court holds some burden-flipping is permissible. Nelson and Madden assert that such a high bar would nonetheless be ill-suited for defendants who simply seek a refund upon reversal of their convictions by contrasting this scenario with that of defendants looking to recover in tort for having been wrongfully incarcerated, where the bar of clear and convincing evidence is properly applied.

Colorado counters that the burden in a criminal trial, requiring the most exacting burden of proof on the state before the state exacts punishment, is not applicable to a suit to recover fines and penalties. Colorado argues that while these monies may have been taken in the course of a criminal trial that itself must meet the presumption of innocence burden, the later suit for recovering money taken by the state’s good-faith mistake is instead equitable in nature. Thus, Colorado asserts that Nelson and Madden’s various arguments resting on the presumption of innocence do not apply, and any conditions that Colorado places on the right to recover money must instead be judged by the less rigorous standard of state action under equity. Colorado argues further by analogy: a state does not need to institute automatic compensation for wrongful incarceration, and so a state logically need not extend such a right to automatic recoupment of the much lesser taking of a criminal fine. Colorado adds that once this position is reached, the clear and convincing standard must be permitted as well; in equity, clear and convincing is an acceptable bar for a claimant to reach. Colorado cites the fact that even habeas corpus petitions, which seek recoupment by a criminal defendant of the weightier right of liberty, use the clear and convincing standard.


Nelson and Madden point to the well-established test in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), where the Court set forth a three-part inquiry requiring consideration of “the private interest affected by the official action; the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used . . . and the Government’s interest.” Nelson and Madden claim that Colorado’s scheme is inconsistent with all three parts of the Mathews procedural balancing test. First, Nelson and Madden mention the clear property interests of the formerly-wrongly convicted party in obtaining restitution for fines and penalties erroneously levied by Colorado. Next, Nelson and Madden claim that such a high bar creates an unnecessarily high risk of unlawfully depriving wrongly-convicted people of their property. Finally, Nelson and Madden purport that the government has no legitimate reason in keeping money that rightly belongs to people whose convictions have been reversed. Nelson and Madden distinguish the asset freezes that the Court found unconstitutional in Luis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1083 (2016), where the government seizure was found reasonable in expectation of a criminal conviction, because in the case at hand, the defendants were cleared of all charges.

Colorado counters by claiming that the analysis should be governed by the tests in Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977), and Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437 (1992), rather than the test in Mathews in isolation. . Colorado grounds this argument on the principle of states’ rights, given that state criminal procedure is fundamentally governed by the states. Further, Colorado questions whether such restitution is a fundamental right at all, and concludes that a state’s decision with regards to this administrative aspect of criminal procedure is “not subject to proscription under the Due Process Clause unless it offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Given this guidance from the Patterson and Medina line of cases, Colorado argues that the Mathews balancing test actually comes out in the state’s favor because the claimant’s right is diminished, and the state interest is increased. For Colorado, a claimant’s Mathews interest must under Patterson be more fundamental in the area of criminal procedure than the claim of restitution raised here, and the state’s interest likewise is stronger than Nelson and Madden give due credit for because of the traditional area of state concern, as Medina makes clear. Finally, Colorado argues that its recovery scheme does not create a substantial risk of an erroneous deprivation of the defendant’s compensation, and that any such risk is furthermore justified by the state’s interest in ensuring that a reimbursement is granted consistent with principles of equity.


Nelson and Madden claim that the traditional rule has always been that when a judgment is reversed, a person who paid money pursuant to that judgment is entitled to receive the money back. Nelson and Madden also argue that no other jurisdiction follows a scheme like that of Colorado, explaining how everywhere else the common law is applied, defendants are refunded as a matter of course when their convictions are reversed. Nelson and Madden conclude by suggesting that “Colorado has replaced a fair and sensible procedure with one that virtually ensures that defendants will not get their money back.”

Colorado seeks to refute that they are the only jurisdiction that does not automatically grant a refund upon overturned convictions. Colorado notes that several other jurisdictions, while not enacting as burdensome a procedure, nonetheless do not provide automatic reimbursements in all cases as Nelson and Madden wrongly portray, with some states just doing so for surcharges but not penalties, or the like.

Colorado argues further that no authority, not even due process jurisprudence, requires a state to grant a wrongly convicted defendant restitution. Since, per Medina, other current practice “is of limited relevance,” and there is currently “no settled view” regarding this claimed procedural right with due process not mandating one particular approach, Colorado argues that any status it may have as an outlier is irrelevant.



The Institute for Justice and the Cato Institute (“the Institutes”), in support of Nelson and Madden, argue that the presumption of innocence has been consistently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court and that it does not fall within the purview of the legislature to affect this presumption. The Institutes describe the presumption of innocence as a requirement of modern conceptualizations of the legal process. The Institutes also argue that the presumption is important for the foundations of a concept of justice because of its historical roots and also because it reflects the belief that liberty will not be deprived without legal proceedings. Further, the Institutes point out that the Supreme Court has determined that while the Constitution does not articulate the presumption of innocence, it is essential to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Finally, the Institutes assert that because Nelson and Madden were not validly convicted, the state cannot retain the property collected from them. The Institutes contend that forcing Nelson and Madden to prove their innocence in order to collect their property would undo the goals of the presumption of innocence.

Colorado argues that not all monetary fees are punitive, and the separate burden of proof required in the civil case for repayment creates a civil judgment in favor of the victim. It indicates that similar statutes do not provide refunds for restitution. Colorado states that the monetary assessments are based on historical considerations of equity. Further, Colorado emphasizes that different mechanisms would interfere with the criminal process. Colorado notes that because of the absence of a settled view on refunds after the reversal of a criminal conviction, due process does not mandate a specific approach.


The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), in support of Nelson and Madden, claims that the Colorado Supreme Court’s interpretation of Colorado’s Exoneration Act dictates extraordinary requirements for exonerated criminal defendants seeking the return of collected funds. The NACDL explains that restoring extracted funds after a conviction is invalidated is grounded not only in British and colonial history but also in the common law. Also, the NACDL suggests that many state and federal courts follow a rule which requires repayment after a conviction has been set aside. Ultimately, the NACDL argues that Colorado’s Exoneration Act stands in opposition to tradition as well as to the federal government's application of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Pacific Legal Foundation (“PLF”) indicates that in the absence of a conviction, Colorado does not have a basis for taking Nelson and Madden’s property. PLF argues that the actions of Colorado violate due process of law because without a conviction, the seizure lacks a legal basis, and thus the deprivation is arbitrary.

Colorado argues that a substantive right to automatic return of funds is not granted by the Constitution. It indicates that this is because due process reaches only certain fundamental rights, and an automatic refund is neither grounded in history nor tradition. Colorado further indicates that historical practice suggests that due process in the criminal context emphasizes equitable considerations, which recognize the court’s discretion. Colorado argues that Colorado’s Exoneration Act is not an outlier and that considering the constitutionality of the statute could have detrimental consequences for other states. Colorado also argues that in the criminal context, defendants are protected by pre- and post-deprivation procedures.

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