NY Times The Supreme Court on Wednesday set aside a $3.4 million award to a victim of child pornography who had sought restitution from a man convicted of viewing images of her. That figure was too much, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for a five-justice majority, returning the case to the lower courts to apply a new and vague legal standard to find a lower amount that was neither nominal nor too severe.
The victim in the case said the majority’s approach was confusing and meant that she might never be compensated for her losses. [...]
The case arose from the prosecution of Doyle R. Paroline, who was convicted in 2009 of possessing 280 images of child pornography. Two of them were of a woman known in court papers as Amy.
Images of Amy being sexually assaulted by her uncle as a child have been widely circulated and have figured in thousands of criminal cases. Amy has often sought restitution for her losses under a 1994 federal law. Every viewing of child pornography, Congress found, “represents a renewed violation of the privacy of the victims and repetition of their abuse.”
Amy’s lawyers say her losses — for lost income, therapy and legal fees — amount to $3.4 million. She has been granted restitution in about 180 cases and has recovered about 40 percent of what she seeks. [...]
The 1994 law allows victims of child pornography to seek the “full amount” of their losses from people convicted of producing, distributing or possessing it, and Amy asked the United States District Court in Tyler, Tex., to order Mr. Paroline to pay her the full $3.4 million.
Mr. Paroline said he owed Amy nothing, arguing that her problems did not stem from learning that he had looked at images of her. Amy’s uncle, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his crimes, bore the brunt of the blame, Mr. Paroline said, but was ordered to pay Amy just $6,325.
Mr. Paroline was sentenced to two years in prison, but the trial judge said Amy was not entitled to restitution, saying the link between Amy’s losses and what Mr. Paroline did was too remote.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, disagreed and awarded Amy the $3.4 million she sought. Mr. Paroline should pay what he could and seek contributions from his fellow wrongdoers if he thought it was too much, the court said, relying on the legal doctrine of “joint and several” liability.
The Supreme Court adopted neither of the lower courts’ approaches. Acknowledging that he was employing “a kind of legal fiction,” Justice Kennedy said the only sensible method of apportionment was for courts to require “reasonable and circumscribed” restitution “in an amount that comports with the defendant’s relative role.” [....]