In recent weeks there have been a few good articles about jurisdictions that take people’s money even when they haven’t been shown to have committed a crime. This is normally talked about in the context of civil asset forfeiture—where police confiscate property on the grounds that it was used in criminal activity, without showing that such activity took place—but it’s apparently a much broader issue that the Supreme Court will be addressing soon.
Here’s the New York Times from late December:
Corey Statham had $46 in his pockets when he was arrested in Ramsey County, Minn., and charged with disorderly conduct. He was released two days later, and the charges were dismissed.
But the county kept $25 of Mr. Statham’s money as a “booking fee.” It returned the remaining $21 on a debit card subject to an array of fees. In the end, it cost Mr. Statham $7.25 to withdraw what was left of his money.
The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to hear Mr. Statham’s challenge to Ramsey County’s fund-raising efforts.
The county “requires people like Mr. Statham to submit evidence to prove they are entitled to get their money back,” the piece explains. It notes that Kentucky also “bills people held in its jails for the costs of incarcerating them, even if all charges are later dismissed.”
And today there’s an article from Garrett Epps in The Atlantic explaining a similar situation:
Consider the case the Supreme Court will hear Monday. Nelson v. Colorado poses the following question: Suppose you are arrested, charged with a serious crime, and convicted. The court sentences you to prison and orders you to pay various fees and restitution—seemingly small amounts that are, given your economic circumstances, daunting nonetheless.
Then, against the odds, you persuade a higher court that the evidence against you was insufficient or improperly admitted. Your conviction is overturned. You are free to go.
Can the state keep the money it seized from you on the grounds that you’re probably guilty anyway?
Normally, when someone writes this way about a court case, they’re glossing over important details. Epps isn’t doing that here. Here’s how the Court summarizes the key question:
Colorado, like many states, imposes various monetary penalties when a person is convicted of a crime. But Colorado appears to be the only state that does not refund these penalties when a conviction is reversed. Rather, Colorado requires defendants to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence to get their money back.
The Question Presented is whether this requirement is consistent with due process.
And as Epps explains, Colorado’s brief in the case emphasizes the crimes the defendants were accused of (child sex crimes, in fact) and reframes their demand for a refund as a demand for an “automatic monetary judgment” whenever a conviction is overturned.
To be sure, there is a real debate over the precise limits the Constitution imposes here; otherwise, cases like this wouldn’t make it to the Supreme Court. As Epps notes, Colorado is able to cite numerous cases where people’s penalties weren’t refunded after their convictions were overturned, though in those cases, the defendants had usually either admitted guilt or plead guilty to avoid jail time.
I don’t have any sophisticated legal analysis to add. My point is just this: whatever the limits of the law, it’s an outrage that jurisdictions would enact measures like this and then dig their heels in when sued.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.