Suppose you were wrongfully convicted of a crime, and as part of your conviction you were required to pay court costs and restitution to your alleged victim. Once your wrongful conviction was overturned, you should get that money back, shouldn’t you?
You’ve probably heard that people who are exonerated are entitled to some compensation for their wrongful convictions. Simply being in prison for a number of years puts you behind — no home equity, fewer years of steady job experience, etc. — so Wisconsin has a statute compensating exonerated people up to $5,000 per year they spent wrongfully behind bars, up to $25,000. It’s the lowest amount offered to exonerees in the nation, and yet the exoneree has to actively prove their innocence to claim it.
What about those court costs and that restitution, though? The burden of proof for reimbursement for those costs looks to be changing, at least. The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that states can’t require the exonerated person to prove their innocence to obtain those.
The case before the high court came out of Colorado. There, the statute authorizing the return of conviction-related assessments required multiple steps and had the wrong burden of proof. For one thing, the burden was on the defendant, rather than the state, where it should have been.
After an exoneration has occurred, Colorado law (like Wisconsin and most states) requires a separate proceeding in civil court in which the exonerated defendant can ask to have court costs, restitution and other conviction-related costs to be returned. Unfortunately, in that proceeding the exonerated defendant had to prove their own innocence by clear and convincing evidence.
That’s unfair, wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority. “To get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden.” To place the burden on the defendants violates their Due Process rights.
Does Wisconsin’s statute requiring an exonerated defendant to prove his or her innocence in order to obtain compensation suffer from the same defect? That was not addressed directly in the Supreme Court case. However, efforts are currently being made to amend that law and make it more generous, so perhaps lawmakers should reconsider whether the requirement is fair.
In the Supreme Court case, Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate but concurring opinion.