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Justices uphold restitution order

Prosecutors don’t need to prove defendant is able to pay

The Minnesota Supreme Court took up the issue of whether the state must prove that a defendant’s income, resources, and obligations are such that they can pay the restitution they are ordered to pay. In State of Minnesota v. Michael Phillip Cloutier, the court held March 22 that the state is not required to show that a defendant is able to pay the restitution that has been ordered.

Cloutier pleaded guilty to the second-degree unintentional felony murder of his girlfriend after fatally stabbing her in the neck. Cloutier was ordered to serve 162 months in prison. As part of his sentence, Cloutier was also ordered to pay $7,500 in restitution. The money went to the Minnesota Crime Victims Reparations Board to help cover the victim’s funeral expenses.

However, Cloutier — age 66 at the time of sentencing — moved to be relieved of the restitution obligation, arguing that he was unable to pay the amount owed. While Cloutier had served in the Army and worked as a first responder for the Chicago Fire Department for 15 years, Cloutier apparently had no funds due to not qualifying for or not having pension from either of those positions. He asserted that he had no assets to his name to aid in paying the restitution.

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court concluded that Cloutier would have “the ability to pay restitution someday.” It noted that, among other things, Cloutier would be able to work in prison and would receive Social Security payments upon his release.

At the Court of Appeals, the court concluded that the state merely had the burden to show that the amount or type of restitution was appropriate, not that it would be paid out by the defendant. It also concluded that, if the burden was on the state, the state would have to make discovery requests.

Before the Supreme Court was the question of whether Minnesota Statutes imposed a burden of proof regarding the defendant’s income, resources and obligations. District courts must consider the amount of economic loss sustained by the victim as a result of the offense and the income, resources, and obligations of the defendant when determining the amount of a restitution award. Defendants have the ability to challenge the amount.

Once the defendant produces a sworn affidavit specifying the reasons that the restitution amount ought to differ from the amount requested by the victim, the burden shifts to the prosecution to demonstrate the “appropriateness” of the restitution ordered. The critical question in the case was whether, in determining the “appropriateness” of the restitution, the state was required to show that the defendant’s income, resources, and obligations permit the defendant to pay the ordered restitution.

Cloutier argued that the “appropriateness” language imputes a burden on the state to show that the defendant can pay by citing the state’s consideration of the defendant’s income, resources, and obligations.

“The state did not even claim that Cloutier had the ability to pay,” Sean McGuire, assistant public defender who represented Cloutier, asserted. “When considering what restitution was appropriate in this case, the court had undisputed evidence of the loss but no evidence that Cloutier had any ability to pay the restitution award.”

The state urged the Supreme Court to adopt the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of the language, which was that the state had to show only that the type of restitution ordered was an appropriate form of restitution.

“Notably absent in that statute is any language referring to the defendant or his income, resources, or obligations,” stated Nicole Cornale, assistant Hennepin County attorney. “Based on the statute and case law, victims have a statutory right to receive restitution — not to request restitution, it is to receive restitution. The district court has a duty to vindicate that right.”

Ultimately, the court agreed with the state. “Whether an item is appropriately compensated through restitution is a separate question from whether a defendant is able to pay for the item of restitution,” the court wrote.

The court also considered the history of the restitution statute, which was enacted in 1985 and has been amended. In its original formulation, the made no reference to the defendant’s income, resources, and obligations. When amended in 1989 to add consideration of the defendant’s ability to pay, the prosecution’s burden of proof was unchanged.

It determined that, had it been its intent, the Legislature would have used more direct language in the statute to indicate that the “appropriateness” of restitution included taking the defendant’s income and resources into consideration. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

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