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People v. Nelson

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 21, 2015

Petitioner: the People of the State of Colorado,
v.
Respondent: Shannon Nelson

Editorial Note:

This Opinion is subject to revision upon final publication.

Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Court of Appeals Case No. 11CA1206.

SYLLABUS

The supreme court holds that a court may not authorize a refund of costs, fees, and restitution to a defendant who was acquitted after a new trial unless it has statutory authority to do so. The trial court may not issue a refund because the statutes governing the fines, fees, and restitution imposed in this case do not empower it to do so. Exonerated defendants may only seek a refund of costs, fees, and restitution through a separate civil proceeding governed by sections 13-65-101 to -103, C.R.S. (2015).

For Petitioner: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General, Christine Brady, Senior Assistant Attorney General, John J. Fuerst III, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado.

For Respondent: Law Office of Suzan Trinh Almony, Suzan Trinh Almony, ADC Attorney, Broomfield, Colorado.

OPINION

Page 1071

RICE, CHIEF JUSTICE

[¶1] This case requires us to decide whether Respondent Shannon Nelson may receive a refund of costs, fees, and restitution that she paid following a conviction. Nelson's conviction was overturned and she was acquitted after a new trial. We hold that a trial court may not authorize a refund of costs, fees, or restitution following a criminal trial without statutory authority. Because none of the statutes governing the fines, fees, and restitution empowered the trial court to issue a refund, it could not do so. Exonerated defendants may seek a refund of costs, fees, and restitution, but only through a separate civil proceeding, which Nelson did not pursue.

I. Facts and Procedural History

[¶2] In 2006, Nelson was convicted of five charges relating to sexual assaults allegedly committed against her children. The trial court sentenced Nelson to prison for twenty years to life, and ordered that she pay court costs, fees, and restitution. Specifically, the trial court ordered Nelson to pay the following costs and fees: (1) $125.00 to the victim compensation fund, (2) $162.50 to the victims and witnesses assistance and law enforcement fund (referred to as the " VAST fund" in the Register of Actions and this opinion), (3) $35.00 for court costs, and (4) a " time payment fee" of $25.00. She was also ordered to pay $7,845.00 in restitution, bringing the total owed to $8,192.50.

[¶3] The court of appeals reversed the judgment against Nelson and remanded for a new trial based on the improper use of an unendorsed expert witness. People v. Shannon Kay Gonser, n/k/a Shannon Nelson, No. 06CA1023 (Colo.App. Apr. 9, 2009). In the second trial, a new jury acquitted Nelson of the five charges.

[¶4] Between Nelson's initial conviction and subsequent acquittal, the Department of Corrections withheld $702.10 from her inmate account to pay the costs, fees, and restitution that she owed.[1] Eight months after her acquittal, Nelson filed a motion for a refund of the money she had paid toward the costs, fees, and restitution, arguing that a failure to refund the money would violate state and federal constitutional guarantees of due process. The trial court concluded that it did not have authority to order the Department of Corrections to return the funds. Nelson appealed.

[¶5] People v. Nelson, 2013 COA 58 Id

Id Id Toland v. Strohl,

Page 1072

147 Colo. 577, 364 P.2d 588, 593 (Colo. 1961)). Finally, the court of appeals determined that the State should issue the refund, because the State's action caused the " wrongful payment of restitution." Nelson, ¶ 29. The court of appeals acknowledged that " the [S]tate may be required to refund monies that it has already disbursed to third parties," id. at ¶ 28, but determined that, by disbursing the funds, the State " assumed the risk that the conviction could ultimately be overturned," id. at ¶ 30.

[¶6] The People then petitioned this court for certiorari, asking whether the trial court may order a refund of restitution and, if so, which branch of the government should shoulder that burden. We granted certiorari to consider whether a trial court could issue refunds of not only restitution, but also costs and fees, and to determine which branch, if any, should pay the refunds.[2]

II. Standard of Review

[¶7] Whether a trial court has authority to order a refund of costs, fees, and restitution presents a question of law, which we review de novo. See People v. Porter, 348 P.3d 922, 2015 CO 34, ¶ 8, 348 P.3d 922, 924, 2015 CO 34. This case involves issues of statutory construction, which we also review de novo. Mishkin v. Young, 107 P.3d 393, 396 (Colo. 2005).

III. Analysis

[¶8] We begin with an overview of the statutes governing the costs, fees, and restitution ordered in this case, then proceed to a discussion of whether a trial court may authorize a refund. We hold that a trial court must have statutory authority to order a refund from public funds. A defendant may seek a refund of costs, fees, and restitution through the refund process created by sections 13-65-101 to -103, C.R.S. (2015) (" the Exoneration Act" or " the Act" ). A trial court may not, however, order a refund of ...


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