This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-1 decision in Nelson v. Colorado, striking down a Colorado law that forced people to go to court to affirmatively prove their own innocence in order to recover funds paid as a result of a criminal conviction, after the conviction was reversed on appeal. The Court found this scheme unconstitutional because requiring people to prove their own innocence disregards the presumption of innocence.
Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which submitted an amicus brief in the case highlighting the importance of the presumption of innocence, issued the following statement:
Today’s decision upholds the fundamental principle that Americans are entitled to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. The Court expressly rejected Colorado’s argument that the “presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials,” explaining that the government “may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.”
Unfortunately, civil forfeiture laws turn the presumption of innocence on its head. Using civil forfeiture, law enforcement seizes billions of dollars in cash and other property every year based only on suspicion of a crime. Property owners are then required to prove their own innocence to get that property back.
The continued existence of civil forfeiture cannot be squared with the principles upheld in today’s decision. Together with Justice Thomas’s recent statement in Leonard v. Texas criticizing the civil forfeiture laws, this decision sends a powerful signal that the days of civil forfeiture may now be numbered.