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Conviction Overturned? You May Be Owed a Fine Refund

When a person is convicted of a crime, it's not unusual for the court to order the defendant to pay court fines and/or restitution. What happens to that money when the court overturns the conviction, though? A recent decision by the Supreme Court affirmed what many courts in other jurisdictions already knew; the money should be refunded to defendants as soon as possible. Here's more information about the case that lead to this decision and how you can get your money back from the court.

The Case of Nelson vs. Colorado

The case that resulted in the definitive judgment from the Supreme Court started in Colorado. The plaintiffs were convicted of a mix of felonies and misdemeanors, resulting in the court ordering them to pay a combined total of $12,606 in restitution, fees, and costs. While the plaintiffs were serving their sentences, the state managed to collect $702 from one plaintiff and $1,978 from the second.

Both plaintiffs were later exonerated of the crimes but did not receive a refund of the monies they had paid to the state, so the plaintiffs sued. The Colorado Supreme Court sided with the state, stating the plaintiffs were required to request refunds via the steps outlined in the Exonerated Act. This statute requires plaintiffs to essentially sue the state for the money and prove they are innocent of the crimes they were charged with by presenting clean and convincing evidence.

However, the United States Supreme Court determined this requirement put undue burden on the people who have their criminal convictions overturned. The court reasoned that not everyone can afford the expense of a personal injury lawsuit. Additionally, Colorado's Exoneration Act procedure actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment because the exonerated person is still considered guilty for the purposes of civil court, which violates the due process clause.

As such, the court sided with the plaintiffs, and the state of Colorado was ordered to refund the money. The ruling also essentially voids the state's Exoneration Act statute, so future claimants should be able to get refunds without having to deal with the expense and effort of litigating a lawsuit.

Getting Your Money Back

Colorado is essentially the only state that required people to sue the state to get their money back after their convictions were overturned. However, other states generally do have a claim process people must go through to request a refund of fines, fees, and other eligible monies paid to the court. In New York, for instance, you must submit a request form for a refund with the court. In other states, however, defendants are automatically sent the money they are owed once the court is notified the conviction has been reversed.

Be aware, if the court refuses to refund the money, you may be required to file a complaint with the department or agency before you can file a lawsuit. Most government agencies have an internal complaint resolution system that handles these issues as a way of avoiding the costs associated with defending against a civil suit. You must wait for a response from the agency, which can take a month or two. If the agency denies your request or fails to respond within a reasonable amount of time, you can then sue for a refund of the court fines and fees you were required to pay.

If you suspect the state is withholding money that rightfully belongs to you, it's best to consult with a personal injury attorney who can advise you on the best way to proceed with the case. Sometimes just having a lawyer write a sternly worded letter is enough to make the agency do the right thing and return your funds to you. In other cases, you may have to take the agency to court. For more information about this issue, contact an attorney through services like Gelman Gelman Wiskow & McCarthy LLC.