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Courts Struggle with Child Pornography Restitution Following Supreme Court Ruling

Courts Struggle with Child Pornography Restitution Following Supreme Court Ruling

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is among the latest federal courts to tackle the issue of restitution for victims of child pornography – an issue addressed in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that legal observers say only muddies the waters for victims who attempt to recover damages from defendants in child porn cases.

The high court’s ruling prompted quick action by two U.S. Senators to craft legislation designed to fix the perceived problem, but their proposed bill remains stalled in committee.

In November 2012, the Seventh Circuit held that victims in a child pornography case may intervene to defend the award of restitution in their favor, but only at the appellate level and only if they can prove that they suffered damages as a direct result of a defendant’s actions.

The appellate court issued its decision in the appeal of Christopher L. Laraneta, who was sentenced by an Indiana federal district court to 30 years in prison and lifetime supervised release after pleading guilty to seven counts of violating federal child pornography laws. The district court also ordered him to pay $3.4 million in restitution to a victim known only by the pseudonym “Amy” and nearly $1 million to a second victim known as “Vicky,” because he possessed images of them being raped when they were 8 and 9 years old. Those amounts represented the full amount of restitution awarded to the two victims.

The Seventh Circuit ruled that Laran-eta could not be held responsible for the entire amount because “tens of thousands of pornographic images of Amy and Vicky” being sexually abused “have circulated on the Internet,” raising the question of just how much harm Laraneta alone had caused them.

The determining factor, the Court of Appeals wrote, should be whether Laraneta was responsible for uploading and distributing the images. The Court held that without “a finding that he was a distributor, it is beyond implausible that the victims would have suffered the harm they did had he been the only person in the world to view pornographic images of them.”

The Seventh Circuit also ruled that the district court lacked the legal authority to make Laraneta’s restitution liability “joint and several” for Amy’s and Vicky’s total losses. Therefore, the appellate court “remanded for a redetermination not of the victims’ total damages, which are conceded, but of the portion allocable to the defendant.”

The ruling foreshadowed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Paroline v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 1710 (2014), in which a sharply divided court determined that a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography can only be held responsible for damages suffered by the victim if the defendant “proximately caused” the victim’s suffering. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.20].

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that a defendant should have to pay “for the consequences and gravity of their own conduct, not the conduct of others.”

The circumstances of Laraneta’s case are almost identical to those in Paroline. Doyle Randall Paroline pleaded guilty to possessing 150 to 300 images of child pornography, including two images of Amy, and was sentenced to two years in prison. The district court refused to order him to pay restitution on the grounds that federal prosecutors could not prove that Amy’s suffering “would not have occurred without [Paroline’s] possession of her images.”

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court and ordered Paroline to pay the entire $3.4 million in restitution – the same conclusion reached by the district court in Laraneta’s case. The Court of Appeals held that it was up to Paroline, not Amy, to find other defendants who were also liable for Amy’s suffering and could contribute to the full restitution amount.

On April 23, 2014, the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit and returned the case to the district court to determine how much restitution Paroline should have to pay. Justice Kennedy sought middle ground between the district court’s initial determination that Paroline should pay none of the $3.4 million, and the Fifth Circuit’s finding that he should pay all of it. He wrote that the only sensible way to decide the proper amount was for courts to order “reasonable and circumscribed” restitution “in an amount that comports with the defendant’s relative role” in child pornography cases.

“This cannot be a precise mathematical inquiry and involves the use of discretion and sound judgment,” Justice Kennedy stated. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito and Kagan joined Kennedy in crafting the majority opinion.

Legal observers said that by using such vague, imprecise language, Justice Kennedy set a nearly impossible standard for district courts to follow in determining restitution and, as a result, victims may never collect any damages.

Amy’s disappointment in the ruling was immediate. “I am surprised and confused by the Court’s decision,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “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.”

“The Supreme Court said we should keep going back to the district courts over and over again, but that’s what I have been doing for almost six years now,” she continued. “It’s crazy that people keep committing this crime year after year and now victims like me have to keep reliving it year after year.”

“I’m not sure how this decision helps anyone to really know if, when, and how restitution will ever be paid to kids and other victims of this endless crime. I see that the Court said I should get full restitution ‘someday,’ I just wonder when that day will be and how long I and Vicky and other victims will have to wait for justice.”

Two U.S. Senators reacted quickly to the Supreme Court ruling, and crafted bi-partisan legislation to address the murky issue of restitution in child porn cases.

On May 7, 2014, Senators Chuck Schumer and Orrin Hatch introduced the Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act (S.2301). Under the proposed legislation, federal courts would be required to consider the total harm to a victim, including any harm resulting from persons who have not yet been convicted of a crime involving the victim’s image. The bill places the burden on the defendant instead of the victim to spread the cost of the total restitution amount among other defendants.

“The tragic effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Paroline was this: the more widely viewed the pornographic image of a victim, and the more offenders there are, the more difficult it is for the victim to recover for her anguish and her damages,” Schumer explained. “But there should not be safety in numbers.”

“Senator Hatch and I, and our other co-sponsors, will work hard to make sure victims of these most heinous of crimes get, at a minimum, what they are entitled to get – full restitution for the full harm caused by these terrible acts.”

The legislation would allow victims to collect full restitution for all suffering throughout their lifetimes, including the cost of therapy, medical expenses, lost income and attorney’s fees. The bill would permit – but not require – judges to order defendants to pay the full amount of restitution, and would set minimum restitution of $25,000 in child pornography cases (higher for more severe offenses, including $150,000 for distribution and $250,000 for production).

If there are multiple defendants convicted of crimes involving the same victim, the bill states, a defendant can sue to share the cost of restitution among the other defendants.

In Laraneta’s case, the Seventh Circuit held that Amy was entitled to intervene to protect her interest in receiving restitution, but “it would be a mistake to allow intervention at the district court level.” Such intervention would be a “recipe for chaos.” For example, the appellate court envisioned a plea bargain in which the victim argues for a different agreement than that struck between the defense and the prosecution. Or perhaps a trial in which victims’ attorneys present witnesses, cross examine the defendants’ witnesses or participate at sentencing to persuade the judge to enter a harsher sentence.

The Court of Appeals ruled that complications of intervention at the appellate stage, however, are fewer because participation is limited to the filing of briefs and, at the appellate court’s discretion, participation in oral arguments.

“The case for intervention is most compelling when a person has a direct financial stake in a case and cannot be certain that any party has an interest in defending that stake,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. “The government has no financial stake in restitution to victims of crime.”

The Court of Appeals remanded the case to determine the amount of Laraneta’s restitution. See: United States v. Laraneta, 700 F.3d 983 (7th Cir. 2012), rehearing en banc denied, cert. denied.

As of August 2014, the restitution hearings for both Laraneta and Paroline remained pending before the district courts in their respective criminal cases.

Additional sources:,,, Washington Post

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Related legal case

United States v. Laraneta