By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a Colorado law that allowed the state to keep fees and restitution paid by criminal defendants even when their convictions are overturned, calling it an unconstitutional violation of their rights.
The court sided with two people whose sexual assault convictions were thrown out. The justices ruled 7-1 that a 2013 Colorado law called the Exoneration Act, which forced cleared defendants to prove their innocence in a subsequent lawsuit before getting back money paid to the state after conviction, violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process.
Writing for the court, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticized the Colorado policy of keeping exonerated defendants' money because at that point they are once again presumed to be innocent.
"Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions," Ginsburg wrote.
Shortly after January oral arguments in the case, Colorado officials proposed a bill in the state legislature to fall in line with other states and make it easier to recoup conviction-related penalties. The bill passed last month and takes effect in September.
The case involved two convicted defendants who were later exonerated. Shannon Nelson was found guilty in 2006 in Arapahoe County of incest and abuse of her four children. She was given a 20-year prison sentence and ordered to pay more than $8,100 in court costs, fees and restitution.
Her conviction was overturned due to trial error, and she was acquitted after a retrial. Nelson's brother and his wife meanwhile were convicted of sexually assaulting the children.
Louis Alonzo Madden was convicted in La Plata County in 2005 after he allegedly 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, according to court papers. He was given prison time and more than $4,400 in related fees and restitution. His convictions were later set aside.
Both defendants' bids to get back money they had paid failed in 2015 when the Colorado Supreme Court said it could authorize repayment only if they sued under the Exoneration Act, which was meant to compensate the wrongfully convicted.
They appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Colorado's argument that the funds belonged to the state because the convictions were in place when the funds were taken. Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.
Only eight of the nine justices took part in the ruling because the case was argued before Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court on April 10.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)