Is cause necessary under child pornography restitution law?

It is a criminal offense to knowingly receive, distribute or transport child pornography by mail or other means of interstate commerce under federal law. Those that are convicted must register as a sex offender and can face heavy fines and long prison sentences. Additionally, under the law, child pornography offenders must pay restitution to the victims for the losses resulting from the offense, including the victim's psychiatric and medical expenses, attorneys' fees and any other losses that were the "proximate result" of the offense.

It well settled that the restitution law was intended to apply to those that were responsible for creating or producing the explicit images in question, as their actions directly caused the victim to suffer losses under the law. However, should those who were not directly involved with this aspect also have to pay restitution? The United States Supreme Court recently was asked to decide this question.

Paroline case

During the events of the case, Paroline v. United States, Doyle Paroline was charged with possessing between 150 and 300 images of the sexual abuse of minors. Of the images, two involved the sexual abuse of a young adult named "Amy" by her uncle when she was eight or nine years old. Her uncle took the images in question during the abusive encounters.

When Paroline pled guilty to possessing the images, the government asked the court to compel him to pay $3.4 million in restitution for Amy's losses. Paroline argued that the restitution law did not apply to him, since he was not involved with, nor was connected to, the abuse itself, but merely obtained the images from elsewhere. As a result, he argued, his actions could not have proximately caused Amy to suffer losses.

The court agreed that Paroline's interpretation of the statute was correct, holding that the offender must have proximately caused the victims losses before he or she may be ordered to pay restitution. When the decision was appealed, it was reversed. The appeals court held that even the offender did not proximately cause the victim to suffer losses, the statute requires the payment of restitution. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the issue.

The court's decision, expected later this year, will have a far-reaching effect on the punishment of child pornography offenders. If the court rules that the restitution statute does not require the offender to have proximately caused the victim's losses, it would mean that all child pornography offenders, no matter how removed they are from the actual abuse of the victim, could be held liable for restitution, which is arguably a harsh and unjust result.

Consult an attorney

Despite what the court decides, child pornography will remain a serious crime that carries life-long punishments. If you have been charged with this crime, it is vital to have the representation of an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney can protect your rights and put together an aggressive defense on your behalf.