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Paroline v. United States

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Paroline v. United States

Supreme Court of the United States

134 S. Ct. 1710 (2014) [Case No. 12-8561]

23 April 2014

Instrument(s) Cited:
18 U.S.C. 2259 – Violence Against Women Act, mandatory restitution for federal criminal offences, including child pornography possession

Case Summary:

The defendant pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in the District Court, but the District Court denied restitution because the government failed to show what losses were proximately caused by the defendant. The Fifth Circuit reversed this decision, concluding that the defendant was liable for the victim’s entire loss from the trade in her images. Certiorari was granted by the Supreme Court in order to resolve a conflict among the Circuit Courts of Appeals.

Issue and resolution:
Child pornography; restitution. The Supreme Court held that restitution is available under Section 2259 only to the extent that the defendant’s offence proximately caused the victim’s losses.

Court reasoning:
Section 2259 has a broad restitutionary purpose; a textual analysis of the provision suggests that the drafters intended to require some type of proximate cause before ordering restitution for a victim. In this case, the defendant possessed child pornography, but he was one of perhaps thousands who may have had these images. Therefore, it would be unjust to require full restitution from him, but it would be unjust to deny a victim restitution because the court cannot prove the causal link between the defendant’s possession and the victim’s losses. The court reasoned that where it can be shown both that: (1) a defendant possessed a victim’s images, and (2) a victim has outstanding losses caused by the continuing traffic in her images, but where it is impossible to trace a particular amount of those losses to the individual defendant, a court should order restitution in an amount that comports with the defendant’s relative role in the causal process underlying the victim’s general losses.

Dissenting opinions:
There were several dissenting opinions, each of which take a differing view on how to interpret the statute and order restitution:

Dissent (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas): The majority decision is arbitrary and without a basis in the law. Unfortunately, Congress provided no mechanism for determining causation, but the standard requires actual causation. In this case, because the losses were the results of people viewing the images over time, and not one specific instance resulting in, for example, physical damage, there is a problem of proving the statutorily-required actual causation. Here, because she cannot prove actual causation, and Congress has not provided a mechanism for it, restitution should be denied.

Dissent (Sotomayor): Based on a reading of the statute, restitution should be ordered in full based on aggregate causation. Congress did not intend Section 2259 to provide a safe harbour for offenders by parcelling out restitution.

The case was remanded to the District Court to determine what portion of the originally-ordered $3.4 million in restitution the defendant is responsible for. The Supreme Court did not provide a clear mechanism for determining this portion, so the District Court’s ruling has the possibility to set the standard.

Link to Full Judgment:

This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.

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