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Is Monetary Punishment for Someone Found Not Guilty of a Crime Constitutional?

The United States Supreme Court held in 2017 that the institution of monetary punishments is not constitutional if an accused person is found not guilty. In an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held in Nelson v. Colorado that monies paid in fines, costs, and restitution must be refunded when someone is found not guilty. In this case, Shannon Nelson was convicted by a Colorado jury of two felonies and three misdemeanors involving sexual and physical abuse of four children. She received a sentence of 20 years to life and was ordered to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fines, fees, and restitution.

She appealed her conviction and her conviction was reversed. She was tried again and found not guilty. She petitioned to have the money returned but only a portion of it was.

The Colorado Supreme Court eventually held that she did not petition under the Compensation for Certain Exonerated Persons statute which requires one to be compensated only if they prove their actual innocence. She, of course, was not seeking compensation but seeking the refund of her money.

Justice Ginsburg held that it was a Fourteenth Amendment violation of the United States Constitution to retain her money after she had been found not guilty of a crime. Once her conviction was reversed she was presumed innocent and that presumption, as always, stood as a witness for her during trial and the jury found that she was not guilty. She should therefore not be punished for a crime that the jury said she did not commit.