US Supreme Court Places Limits on Restitution Awards in Child Pornography Cases

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Paroline v. United States.  The decision instructs district courts to adopt a common sense approach in computing restitution awards in child pornography cases.

Paroline pleaded guilty to possessing images of child pornography downloaded from the internet, which included two of the victim identified only as “Amy”.  Images of Amy were circulated on the internet, and were available to, and downloaded by, any number of unknown and/or unidentified individuals in addition to Paroline.  Amy sought full restitution from Paroline, consisting of $3 million in lost income and $500,000 in future treatment and counseling costs.  The district court declined to award restitution, concluding that the Government failed to meet its burden of proving what portion of the full amount of losses, if any, was caused by Paroline’s offense.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then ruled that the applicable statute did not limit the amount of the restitution award to losses caused by any particular defendant, and that each defendant who had Amy’s images was liable for her entire loss.  Thus, Paroline was on the hook for $3.5 million in restitution for possessing two images of Amy downloaded from the internet, notwithstanding the fact that these images circulated freely on the web, and had been downloaded by any number of viewers to whom he had no connection.

The Supreme Court found correctly that under the circumstances, it was inappropriate to saddle one individual who had only two images with the entire award.  First, the Court found that under the applicable statute, restitution was proper only to the extent that the defendant’s offense conduct caused the victim’s losses.  Further, the Government has the burden of demonstrating the amount of that loss.  Moreover, the Court found that victims in “CP” cases should be compensated and defendants must account for the impact that their conduct has on the victim but, at the same time, defendants should be liable only for the consequences and gravity of their conduct, and not the conduct of others.

The Court noted that proving aggregate losses arising from the ongoing traffic in Amy’s images was relatively simple, but the statute focused on how much of the aggregate losses could be attributed to the conduct of a particular defendant, such as Paroline.  The Government and the victim argued for a less restrictive causation requirement.  The Court responded by observing that Congress gave no indication in the applicable statute contradicted the general principle that the size of a restitution award should reflect the consequences of a defendant’s conduct.  Further, there was no basis upon which to require the defendant to pay the entire award and then be burdened with seeking contribution from other unknown and unidentified responsible parties.  Finally, obligating any one defendant to pay the entire award raised Constitutional questions under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

Against this backdrop, the Court found that where it can be shown that a defendant had a victim’s images and that a victim has outstanding losses resulting from the ongoing trafficking in her images but a particular amount of the losses cannot be traced to the individual defendant, the district court should order restitution in an amount that comports to the defendant’s relative role in the causal process underlying the victim’s general loss.  District courts will be relied upon to use discretion and sound judgment in determining the proper amount of restitution under such circumstances.  Thus, restitution awards must reflect the unique offense conduct of a given defendant, and the actual impact that the defendant’s conduct had upon the victim.

The Court’s approach makes perfect sense.  Nobody can argue seriously that child pornography is a good thing, or that the subject of the images does not sustain real damages.  However, and as the Court noted, Amy never met Paroline and did not know him.  There also was no way to ascertain how many other individuals possessed images of Amy.  The Court’s message is clear – Paroline should be required to account for his conduct and the resulting damages, but no more.  Requiring Paroline to pay for the conduct of an unknown number of unidentified (and probably unidentifiable) individuals is completely contrary to our notion of justice.

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