On April 23, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Paroline v. United States, No. 12-8561, vacating an award of $3.4 million and holding that restitution under 18 U.S.C. § 2559 to a victim of child pornography is proper only to the extent a particular defendant's offense proximately caused the victim's losses.
Paroline pled guilty to possession of 150-300 images of child pornography, which included two photographs of a woman going by the pseudonym "Amy." Paroline was sentenced to 24 months incarceration followed by release under supervision. Under 18 U.S.C. § 2559, which mandates full restitution to victims of child pornography by those convicted of creating, distributing, or possessing such material, the federal government and Amy sought restitution in the amount of nearly $3.4 million. The district court denied restitution, concluding that the government had not met its burden of proving what losses were proximately caused by Paroline's offense. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and held that Paroline was responsible for restitution of the victim's entire losses from the trade in her images, even though other offenders played a role in causing those losses.
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that restitution is proper under 18 U.S.C. § 2559 only to the extent the defendant's offense proximately caused the victim's losses. The Court determined that victims should be compensated and defendants should be held to account based only on the consequences and gravity of the defendants' own conduct and not the conduct of others.
For purposes of section 2559 analysis, the issue is how much of the victim's general losses were the "proximate result" of an individual defendant's offense. Where the court cannot trace a particular amount of the victim's losses to the individual defendant under a traditional causal inquiry, a court should order restitution against a defendant in an amount that comports with that defendant's relative role in the causal process underlying the victim's general losses. Although the Court refrained from giving detailed guidance on conducting this analysis, it noted that a starting point may be to determine the amount of the victim's losses caused by the continuing traffic of 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.
In this case, the Court concluded that the restitution amount would not be severe given the relatively remote causal connection between Paroline's conduct and the entirety of the victim's general losses from the trade in her images, which are the product of the acts of thousands of offenders. Instead, the award should be "reasonable and circumscribed" in recognition of the defendant's role in the process underlying the victim's losses. The Court determined that this balance would serve the twin goals of helping the victim achieve eventual restitution for all of her child-pornography-related losses and impressing upon offenders the fact that child-pornography crimes affect real victims.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito and Kagan joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia and Thomas joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a separate dissenting opinion.