May 9, 2014

Paroline v. U.S. - Child Pornography Restitution Limited by U.S. Supreme Court

by The Law Office of Timothy L. Healy

An accuser in child pornography cases isn't entitled to limitless restitution from the defendant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently in Paroline v. United States.
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Tacoma child pornography defense attorneys recognize that this ruling is significant for the fact that it may substantially reduce the potential restitution for certain defendants, while expanding it for others.

The court rejected the idea that a single person who possesses images of child pornography will be required to pay the full amount due the victim, but did say that victims have the right to pursue damages from every person caught with the illegal images.

The 5-4 ruling upholds a portion of the Violence Against Women Act that calls for restitution for child pornography victims. However, it adopts a middle-of-the-road position on how that amount is determined. Basically, the court said, those who possess the images are going to have to pay something because they contributed to the ongoing abuse.

The ruling leaves it to federal judges to determine the exact amount that is appropriate for each case.

This case began when a 17-year-old girl learned that images of the sexual abuse she endured as a young child were making rounds on the Internet. While the exact reach is unknown, it is believed that thousands possess the images. The producer of the images, her uncle, had already been prosecuted and had paid $6,000 in restitution.

The young woman then filed civil cases around the country, seeking restitution from every person who had pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in which illegal images of her had been among those possessed.

One of those was a defendant from Texas, Paroline. A federal judge denied an earlier order for the defendant to pay restitution to the accuser because he held there was no indication that the defendant's offense had caused or contributed to the victim's abuse. However, a federal appellate court reversed, finding the opposite: That Paroline was responsible for the full amount of restitution, in this case $3.4 million.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that, but did say that Paroline could be ordered to pay a "reasonable" amount that would be considered more in line with his criminal actions.

The court said that it would be fiction to assume that a victim's entire losses were the proximate result of one possessor's offense. Indeed, in this case, the defendant possessed some 300 pornographic images of children, but just two of the victim. The court called the causal process to the underlying victim's losses in this cases to be "very minor," compared to other offenders and particularly distributors, who may have caused hundreds or hundreds of thousands of viewings.

The court conceded it is not possible to identify the "discrete, readily definable incremental loss (the defendant) caused," but said it was indisputable that he was part of the overall phenomenon that caused her general losses.

The court said victims can't be denied restitution, but neither can every viewer be held fully accountable for the totality of the damages.

If you have been arrested for a sex crime in Tacoma, contact Timothy L. Healy at 888-312-3093 - a 24-hour hotline.

Additional Resources:
Paroline v. United States, April 23, 2014, U.S. Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Successful Removal from Washington State Sex Offender Registry, March 26, 2014, Tacoma Sex Crimes Defense Attorney