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Justices: Colorado policy on court fees unconstitutional

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The Supreme Court of the United States ruled Wednesday that Colorado's practice of not automatically refunding court fees and other costs to people convicted of crimes but later exonerated violates the Constitution.

The 7-1 decision sided with two people whose convictions for sexual offenses were later thrown out. One paid about $700 in court fees, including victim restitution, while the other paid more than $4,400 in similar costs.

Colorado law had required people cleared of wrongdoing to recover their costs in a separate civil lawsuit. But they could not get a refund unless they proved their innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said those hurdles violated the due process rights of criminal defendants.

"The state may not retain their money simply because their convictions were in place when the funds were taken, for once those convictions were erased, the presumption of Nelson's and Madden's innocence was restored," Ginsburg said.

Colorado appeared to be the only state that didn't automatically refund such fees.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately to say that that the majority went too far in saying that an award of victim restitution should always be returned when a defendant's conviction is reversed.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the defendants did not have a constitutional right to recover costs and fees they paid to the state.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in the U.S. Supreme Court case, which was argued before he took his seat on the court.

Spurred by the Supreme Court case, Colorado's Legislature passed a bill giving those exonerated a refund of court costs and other fees without having to prove their innocence again. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill into law in March, and it goes into effect Sept. 1.

The measure was supported by Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who defended the state before the Supreme Court.

"With the clarity we received from the Supreme Court today, I hope Colorado's new law can be an example for other states. We now have the most complete statute on this subject anywhere in the country," Coffman said.

Hickenlooper signed a second measure into law in April that allows people found innocent of felony crimes after serving time in jail or prison to receive a lump sum compensation payment in lieu of annual payments. Those exonerated are eligible to receive $70,000 per year incarcerated and $25,000 per year spent on parole.

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