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Supreme Court takes a deeper look at restitution for child porn victims

A policewoman stands at her post in front of the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC.
A policewoman stands at her post in front of the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC.

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Should a person convicted of possession of child pornography be held liable for full restitution for a specific child who is harmed, even if the convicted individual was not involved in the production or distribution of the image? Even if there are other individuals in possession of the same image?

The Supreme Court is looking to decide just that in a recent appeal case, Paroline v. United States, in which Doyle Randall Paroline was found guilty of having a collection of illegal pornographic images, including two of a woman who goes by the name of Amy in court documents.

Paroline is currently being held liable for $3.4 million - the total damages claimed - for what "Amy"s attorneys call his contribution to the aggregate harm suffered by the woman who was only eight years old when her uncle started raping her and seventeen when she found out the sex acts had gone viral.

The Violence Against Women Act provides that people whose images are used in child pornography can sue those found in possession of that pornography, in addition to the producers and distributors. This case is one of more than 3,200 criminal cases in the United States that involves Amy’s image.

Paroline's attorneys argue in his appeal that there is no proof that he alone caused her harm.

Another case decided on January 27 could now impact the final ruling in Paroline v. United States. In Burrage vs. United States, the federal law at issue is that which makes it a crime to sell heroin, but then also adds to the punishment if the person who used the drug dies.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court decided that the enhanced punishment may only be imposed if prosecutors prove that the one drug which was sold was the actual cause of death, when the person actually had used several drugs. In response to this ruling, Paroline's Houston attorney Stanley G. Schneider, now seeks a new brief in his case, arguing that Paroline should only be assessed for his share of the crime.

To recover restitution, must a victim establish a causal relationship between the defendant's conduct and the victim's harm or damages? Can the victim be awarded full restitution from one defendant even if thousands of other current or future defendants may exist?


Lisa McElroy, Associate Professor of Law, Drexel University