Supreme Court Rules Against Colorado’s Exoneration Act

Civil asset forfeiture laws are some of the most egregious violations of human rights in existence. The existence of these laws means that one cannot own property in any sense, they can merely possess things until the State claims that those things are tied to a drug crime.

Colorado’s Exoneration Act created a similar environment to civil asset forfeiture. Under the law the State was allowed to keep any seized property even if the suspect was declared not guilty of the charges brought against them. The only way for the rightful owner to retrieve their property was to file a civil suit and prove that they weren’t guilty of the crime (which is different than being declared not guilty). The Supreme Court decided that that process was bullshit:

The case arose after two defendants, Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, were convicted for sexual offenses and ordered to pay thousands of dollars in court costs, fees and restitution. Between her conviction and later acquittal, the state withheld $702 from Nelson’s inmate account, while Madden paid Colorado $1,977 after his conviction. When their convictions were overturned, Nelson and Madden demanded their money back.

Although a state appellate court sided with them, the Colorado Supreme Court denied their refund request. Instead, the court ruled that Nelson and Madden could reclaim their money only through the state’s Exoneration Act, which requires filing a civil claim and proving “that the person was actually innocent of the crime for which he or she was convicted.”


Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-1 ruling, ruled Colorado’s law was unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held that “the Exoneration Act’s scheme does not comport with the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.” Nelson and Madden are “entitled to be presumed innocent” and “should not be saddled with any proof burden” to regain what is rightfully theirs.

Ginsburg forcefully rejected Colorado’s argument that “[t]he presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials,” and not to civil claims, as under the Exoneration Act: “Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.”

I hope that this ruling can act as precedence against the practice of civil asset forfeiture. So long as that set of vile laws exists the concept of innocent until proven guilty can’t exist.