The Colorado law required people cleared by the courts to file separate civil suits and prove their innocence with clear and convincing evidence to obtain reimbursement.
The law was challenged by Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, who had been ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fees and restitution after they were convicted of sex offenses. After their convictions were overturned, they filed motions in their criminal cases seeking refunds of what they had paid.
The vote was 7 to 1. Five justices joined Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred on other grounds. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, and Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who just joined the court, did not participate.
Justice Ginsburg said Colorado’s scheme violates the 14th Amendment’s protection for due process of law because it presumes the exonerated defendants are still guilty. “After a conviction has been reversed, unless and until the defendant should be retried, he must be presumed innocent of that charge,” she said, quoting earlier rulings. “Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary extractions.”
Justice Thomas wrote a dissent raising questions about the rights of citizens versus the government and the reach of the 14th Amendment. He criticized his colleagues for citing the Due Process Clause when the real question was whether the exonerated defendants had a substantive right to the property they paid to the state. The 14th Amendment doesn't create property rights, Thomas said, but establishes the basic rules for protecting them including the right to notice and an opportunity to be heard.