The popularity of “Making a Murderer” on Netflix and the first season of the NPR podcast “Serial” has sparked a national conversation about potential wrongful criminal convictions and the ability of the American legal system to deal with the issue and compensate for injustices. Now, those who are found to be wrongfully convicted of a crime will be afforded relief from an unlikely source: the tax code.
At the end of 2015, President Obama signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 (P.L. 114-113), which includes a provision preventing the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) from taxing restitution or civil damages awarded to individuals determined to be wrongfully incarcerated.
Previously, it had been the IRS’s position that tax was due on monetary awards received by an individual who had been wrongfully convicted unless the money was received because the individual had become sick or was physically injured while wrongfully incarcerated. The new law ensures that no monetary award received on account of an individual’s wrongful incarceration will be subject to federal taxation.
This new law even goes one step further: it applies retroactively to those who paid tax on their awards at any time in the past. Those who may have been wrongfully convicted due to the lack of DNA evidence available during their trial, perjury, or other reasons who were subsequently exonerated and awarded restitution or civil damages for their wrongful incarceration will have until Dec. 18, 2016, one year after the date the law was enacted, to file a claim for a refund on the tax they paid.
Although the jury is still out on whether the convictions of Steven Avery (“Making a Murderer”) and Adnan Syed (“Serial") were proper, one thing is certain: if their convictions are overturned, any monetary awards they receive from the state will be theirs to keep, free from federal tax.