When can a victim obtain restitution in a federal criminal case?

The Supreme Court recently delivered an opinion in Doyle Randall Paroline v. United States that found restitution proper under 18 U.S.C. § 2259 only to the extent that defendant's offense proximately caused a victim's losses. The Supreme Court's holding vacated and remanded a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had previously found the opposite to be true.

The petitioner in this case, Paroline, pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing images of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252. Two of the images held by Paroline were of the same individual. This individual was a victim of sexual abuse as a young girl and she had been abused in order to produce the child pornography. It was not until this victim was 17 years old that she learned of her images being trafficked on the Internet. The victim sought restitution under § 2259, requesting nearly $3 million in lost income and about $500,000 in future treatment and counseling costs.

Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2259, the court shall order restitution for any offense under this chapter. The defendant will be directed to pay the victim the full amount of the victim's losses as determined by the court. The term "full amount of the victim's losses" includes any costs incurred by the victim for medical services relating to physical, psychiatric, or psychological care; physical and conditional therapy or rehabilitation; necessary transportation, temporary housing, and child care expenses; lost income; attorneys' fees, as well as other costs incurred; and any other losses suffered by the victim as a proximate result of the offense.

The victim in Paroline's case argued that each possessor of her images should be liable for her entire loss, not just those losses that were directly caused by them. The Supreme Court disagreed. Applying the statute's causation requirements in Paroline's case, the Supreme Court found that victims should be compensated and defendants should be held to account for the impact of their conduct on those victims, but defendants should only be made liable for the consequences and gravity of their own conduct, not the conduct of others.

The Supreme Court cautioned district courts to use discretion and sound judgment in determining the proper amount of restitution. The Supreme Court listed several factors that district courts can use as guideposts. A good place to start would be to determine the amount of the victim's losses caused by the continuing traffic in the victim's images, and then base an award on factors bearing on the relative causal significance of the defendant's conduct in producing those losses.

The victim in this case was not satisfied with the Supreme Court's ruling. She argued that her losses are "indivisible." The Court explained that it is required to define a causal standard that effects the statute's purposes, not to apply tort-law concepts in a mechanical way in the criminal restitution complex. The victim further argued that she might never reach a full recovery. The Supreme Court explained that Congress has not promised victims full and swift restitution at the cost of holding a defendant liable for an amount drastically out of proportion to his individual causal relation to those losses. This formula helps the victim towards recovery and it impresses upon defendants that their acts are not irrelevant or victimless.

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