Supreme Court struggles with restitution for child porn victims
Washington • The Supreme Court lent a sympathetic ear Wednesday to a victim of child pornography who wants the court to make it easier for victims to collect money from people convicted of downloading and viewing the pornographic images.
The woman known as Amy was at the court, her legal team said, for arguments in which the justices underscored that she and other victims of child pornography suffer serious psychological harm whenever anyone looks at their images online.
But the court seemed to struggle with determining how much restitution for counseling, lost income and legal fees any single defendant should be asked to pay.
The justices heard an appeal from Doyle Randall Paroline, who was held liable by a federal appeals court for the nearly $3.4 million judgment 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 had hundreds of images of children on his computer when he was arrested but only two were of Amy.
"He's guilty of the crime, but to sock him with all of her psychological costs and everything else because he had two pictures of her. Congress couldn't have intended that," Justice Antonin Scalia said in an exchange with Amy's lawyer, Paul Cassell.
Several other justices also said they were troubled by the apparent lack of a link between the crime and the restitution order.
But Cassell said that when Congress wrote a 1994 law giving victims of child pornography and other sexual crimes the right to collect restitution from people convicted of the crimes, it meant to make it easy for the victim to collect.
The idea, Cassell said, is that courts could hold everyone responsible for the total amount. Most people could afford only a small portion, but a few wealthier defendants might be able to pay the bulk of the judgment.
Amy has so far received more than $1.75 million, Cassell said. Of that total, $1.2 million came from one man.
If the justices weren't entirely persuaded by Cassell's argument, they also had problems with the solutions put forth by Paroline's lawyer, Stanley Schneider, and Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben.
Schneider said that there is no relationship between Paroline's conduct and Amy's losses, so that there should be no award of restitution.
Justice Elena Kagan said Schneider's position could lead to odd results. If only one person were convicted of viewing the images, he might be responsible for all the damages, Kagan said. "But if 1,000 people viewed them, no one would be on the hook for restitution. How can that make sense?" she said.
The Obama administration takes a middle ground, saying victims should be awarded some money from each defendant but not the entire amount. Dreeben said trial judges should make the determination.
But under questioning, Dreeben could not give the court a single formula judges could apply. "In restitution cases, reasonable estimates are the order of the day," he said.
Amy's lawyers estimate that tens of thousands of people worldwide have downloaded and viewed Amy's images.
Since 2005, there have been about 2,000 prosecutions in federal court that, like Paroline's, included images of the rapes, for which Amy's uncle spent about 10 years in prison and paid a few thousand dollars for counseling sessions for Amy. Restitution has been awarded in just under 200 cases involving Amy's images.
A decision is expected by late June.
The case is Paroline v. Amy Unknown and U.S., 12-8561.
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