The Cautionary Instruction: High Court takes on restitution for victims of child pornography

Friday, 24 January 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

supremecourt 2013wap150This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case to determine whether a victim of child pornography can collect millions of dollars from a defendant who viewed the images on a computer.

The woman, known only as Amy, was trying to convince the justices that people convicted of possessing child pornography should be held liable for the entire cost of the harm suffered by the victim.

The defendant Doyle Randall Paroline is appealing the lower court’s order holding him responsible for nearly $3.4 million in restitution associated with the ongoing Internet trade and viewing of images of Amy being raped by her uncle when she was 8 and 9 years old.

Paroline was sentenced to a two-year prison term and 10 years of supervised release. The FBI sent images from his laptop to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which identified Amy. The U.S. attorney's office alerted her lawyers, who submitted a request for restitution.

The case is the result of Congress' passage of the Sexual Exploitation and Other Abuse of Children Act, which established penalties and restitution for sexual assault, domestic violence and child pornography.

Since Amy’s images were discovered, federal authorities have identified more than 3,200 cases in which they were downloaded. They have won court orders for restitution totaling more than $1.7 million in 182 cases.

This case will test the concept of "joint and several liability" -- whether participants in a crime can be assessed the full cost, regardless of how many others were involved. Such an arrangement makes it easier for victims to get full restitution; violators have the burden of seeking contributions from others convicted for the same offense.

The justices were sympathetic.

"The woman has undergone serious psychological harm because of her knowledge that there are thousands of people out there viewing her rape," Justice Antonin Scalia said, later adding, "Each person increases the amount of her psychological harm."

While the justices agreed she deserves the money, they didn't agree that Paroline should be asked to pay it all. "Some limiting principle has to come into play," Justice Stephen Breyer said. Paroline's culpability in dollars and cents appears to have been "plucked out of the air," said Justice Elena Kagan.

A decision is expected this summer.


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is due out this summer.

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