SCOTUS case could hike financial damages for child porn victims

Supreme Court examines whether multiple participants in crimes like downloading child porn must pay full restitution

A photo of outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Dec. 3, 2013.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Amy was 8 years old when her uncle began raping her. He repeatedly videotaped the acts of sexual abuse, and in 1999 he pleaded guilty to charges of producing child pornography, serving 10 years in prison.

After seeking therapy, Amy (a pseudonym she adopted to protect her identity) was able to heal from the abuse and "return to normal," according to court documents (PDF).

Several years later she was horrified to learn that her uncle had distributed the images of her rapes online, and that they had become one of the most widely circulated sets of child sex abuse images in the world. All told, they were downloaded more than 70,000 times.

Amy's therapist said the spread of those images had caused "long-lasting and life-changing impacts on her," according to court records, leaving her unable to finish college or work full time.

"Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again," Amy explained in a personal statement.

Precisely for this reason, a portion of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) calls for certain types of convicted sex offenders — including child pornographers — to pay mandatory restitution to their victims to cover medical and psychological care, lost income and attorney costs associated with the abuse.

But as victims' advocates say, courts have had difficulty interpreting how that statute should be applied, and it was a question the U.S. Supreme Court considered on Wednesday in connection with Amy's case.

At stake is the concept of "joint and several liability," in which multiple participants in a crime — in Amy's case, there are perhaps thousands — can be required to pay the entire amount of restitution to a victim, regardless of whether the offender played a large or small role.

The case before the Supreme Court involves restitution that Amy and her attorneys sought from a Texas man named Doyle Randall Paroline, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to possession of child pornography. Among the hundreds of images he'd downloaded to his computer, two were of Amy, according to court documents.

Since her images were discovered by law enforcement as evidence in more than 3,200 child pornography cases since 1998, Amy had filed for restitution in at least 174 different cases in multiple states. Courts have thus far awarded her $1.6 million in total, but her psychologist determined that she was owed $3.4 million for lifetime wages lost and psychological treatment.

So when her attorneys sought restitution from Paroline, they cited the VAWA statute saying that offenders were liable for "the full amount" of restitution and requested the entire $3.4 million from him.

A district court ruled that Amy was owed no restitution from Paroline because the VAWA statute was "largely unworkable," arguing that Amy couldn't prove exactly what losses resulted from Paroline's crime. Now the Supreme Court will settle a split decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans as to what he owes Amy.

A potential game changer

Victims' advocates say the high court's decision could be a game changer for victims of sexual abuse. Historically, courts have had to determine exactly how much any one offender had harmed the victim in cases like Amy's, a complication that would be eliminated.

Courts have decided to award victims anywhere from $50 to $50,000 — or ruled that they should be paid nothing at all, according to Yiota Souras, vice president and general counsel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who attended Wednesday's oral arguments for the case.

"It's been all over the place, quite honestly," she told Al Jazeera. "What hasn't been happening with any regularity is the award of full damages."

The problem with the current system, Souras said, is that "it creates a system for the victim where they have to file dozens and dozens of cases and may never get restitution."

Paroline's Houston-based attorney, Stanley Schneider, argued in court documents that there was no link between Paroline's downloading of Amy's photos and the amount of restitution she was ordered to receive.

"An award of $3.4 million against an individual for possessing two images of child pornography is punitive and grossly disproportionate," he said. Amy's uncle, the rapist, was ordered to pay several thousand dollars for her therapy, Schneider said.

Congress appears to side with Amy. An amicus brief (PDF) submitted in support of her by seven U.S. senators, including Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and John McCain, R-Ariz., said the law was "designed to fully compensate sex-crime victims for their losses ... But as a practical matter, a victim like Amy, whose images have been traded among thousands of individuals, could never be fully compensated for the losses she has suffered."

Still, Souras said the Supreme Court justices debated the "practical applications" of the case, as in: Would it matter if there were one offender or thousands of offenders? Would a steep restitution cost serve as a penalty or a deterrent from committing the actual crime?

But victims' advocates assert that downloading or distributing child pornography is just as harmful to the victims as is the actual abuse.

"It doesn't matter in the eyes of the victim," said Victor Vieth, executive director of the Minnesota-based National Child Protection Training Center, an advocacy and training group.

That would make Paroline just as culpable to Amy as her uncle is.

"That's just the price of being a sex offender," Vieth said. "If you don't want that price, don't do it. Don't go down that path."

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter