April 23 (Bloomberg) -- People convicted of possessing child pornography must pay victims a share of the economic losses they endured, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a decision that tossed out a $3.4 million award and drew dissents from both directions.
A five-justice majority said each culprit must pay an amount that “comports with the defendant’s relative role” in the harm suffered by the victim. The ruling was a partial victory for Doyle Randall Paroline, who pleaded guilty to possessing as many as 300 pornographic images, including two of a girl identified as “Amy” in court papers.
The case forced the justices to grapple with how much impact a single possessor of a widely distributed pornographic image has on a victim. Although a 1994 federal law says victims are entitled to compensation, the measure doesn’t spell out how judges should calculate the sum.
“Defendants should be made liable for the consequences and gravity of their own conduct, not the conduct of others,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Kennedy said that while the amount wouldn’t be “token or nominal,” it also wouldn’t be “severe,” at least when the defendant was one of thousands of people who viewed an image.
Amy sought $3.4 million in lost earnings and treatment costs. Federal prosecutors were pursuing that sum in court on Amy’s behalf. The images depicted Amy being raped by her uncle when she was 8 and 9 years old.
The ruling returns the case to a federal trial court in Texas to determine how much Paroline must pay. It sets aside a federal appeals court decision that had required Paroline to pay the full sum.
Amy’s lawyer told the Supreme Court that she had already recouped $1.75 million from other perpetrators, which would have offset part of the amount Paroline was being asked to pay.
Amy said she was “shocked and confused” by the court’s ruling, according to a statement posted online by her lawyer. “I really don’t understand where this leaves me and other victims who now have to live with trying to get restitution probably for the rest of our lives,” she said.
Chief Justice John Roberts was one of three dissenters who said that, while “Amy deserves restitution,” the 1994 statute makes it impossible for the government to show that Paroline’s conduct was the legal cause of her losses.
“The statute as written allows no recovery; we ought to say so and give Congress a chance to fix it,” Roberts wrote for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Paroline should have been held responsible for the full amount and put on a payment schedule.
“It is my hope that the court’s approach will not unduly undermine the ability of victims like Amy to recover for -- and from -- the unfathomable harms they have sustained,” she wrote.
The case is Paroline v. United States, 12-8561.
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