Nelson v. Colorado

Following is the case brief for Nelson v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 1249 (2017)

Case Summary of Nelson v. Colorado:

  • Petitioners Nelson and Madden were convicted in Colorado court, in separate cases, on sexual assault charges.
  • Their convictions were subsequently overturned.  They then sought a refund of the fees and costs they paid to the State in connection with their convictions.
  • The Colorado Supreme Court held that the Exoneration Act requires that the individuals file a civil action and prove actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence before obtaining a refund.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Colorado Supreme Court.  It held that due process demands the State return the money while only requiring minimal process from those seeking the refund.

Nelson v. Colorado Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In Colorado, Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden were charged and convicted of certain sexual assault charges in separate cases.  Nelson’s conviction was reversed on appeal due to trial errors, and Nelson was acquitted by a jury on retrial.  Madden’s conviction was partially reversed on appeal, and the State decided not to retry Madden.

Both Nelson and Madden payed certain fees to the State in connection with their initial convictions.  Having been acquitted of the charges against them, they both sought return of the money they paid, which amounted to about $700 for Nelson, and $2,000 for Madden.

Procedural History:

  • The trial courts in both cases refused to refund Nelson’s and Madden’s money.
  • The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the trial courts.
  • The Colorado Supreme Court, however, reversed the Court of Appeals, and held that Nelson and Madden could not recover their monies unless they prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that they are actually innocent of the charges, based on Colorado’s Exoneration Act.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the refusal to refund conviction-related fees and costs violate due process if the convictions at issue were ultimately overturned?  Yes.


The decision of the Colorado Supreme Court is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Due process demands that a State not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.


Colorado’s Exoneration Act, which requires that individuals prove actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence before they can get a refund for fees and costs for convictions that were later overturned, violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This case is controlled by the Court’s three-part test in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, which balances (i) the private interest affected; (ii) the risk of erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used; and (iii) the governmental interest at stake.  In this case, all three weigh heavily in favor of Nelson and Madden.

The private interest is the defendants’ money, which must be restored once their convictions were erased.  If guilty of no crime, the defendants cannot remain guilty enough for the State to keep their money.  Further, Colorado’s Exoneration Act creates an unacceptable risk of taking defendant’s money, and the government has no valid claim to the defendants’ money.

Colorado’s process to restore money under the Exoneration Act is improper.  The sheer expense of filing a civil action makes requests for small amounts of money prohibitive.  Also, proof of innocence to get a refund is inappropriate.  Once a defendant is free of any criminal charges, the presumption of innocence is restored.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Alito):

The case is actually controlled by Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, which also leads to the conclusion that Colorado’s Exoneration Act violates due process.  Medina finds that the costs and fees are part of the “criminal process” and must be unwound when a defendant is cleared of criminal charges.

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

Strangely, Justice Thomas does not see that defendants whose convictions have been reversed have any “substantive entitlement” to recover money they paid to the State.  Ostensibly, Justice Thomas seems to say that the State gets to keep the money because the convictions were valid at one point in time.


Nelson v. Colorado appears significant because of the obviousness of its conclusion – the State took the defendants’ money as a result of their convictions, and when the convictions were overturned, the State must give back the money.  The fact that Justice Thomas seems to disagree with that logical conclusion is noteworthy.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments