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Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Child Pornography Victim Restitution

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In January, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether a person convicted of possessing child pornography can be ordered to pay full restitution to the victim. In a recent article, The New York Times recounts the story of a woman named "Amy" who is the child depicted in one of the most commonly viewed child pornography images in the world. Images of her abuse have been involved in more than 3,000 criminal cases since 1998. Soon, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not financial restitution to victims like Amy will be required from those convicted of child pornography.

In 1994, the Supreme Court passed a law that allows victims of crimes such as this to petition for restitution (18 USC Chapter 110). Congress found that, in cases like Amy's, repeated viewing of the abuse is tantamount to the victim being abused again and again. No amount of money can ever erase the abuse from Amy's past, but her monetary expenses resulting from the abuse total about $3.4 million according to lawyers.

Since multiple defendants (more than 3,000) have viewed the sexual exploitation of Amy as a child, the Supreme Court Justices are faced with a dilemma, namely, how to allocate the $3.4 million in restitution between the defendants.

Under the 1994 law, Amy went to the U.S. District Court in Tyler, Texas to demand the full $3.4 million in restitution from a single defendant, but the judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to connect the defendant's possession of images of Amy as a child with Amy's current problems such as alcohol abuse and inability to hold down a job. An appeals court in New Orleans overturned the verdict and required the defendant to pay the full $3.4 million to Amy. If he was unable to pay the full amount, the court said, he would have to petition for financial help from the others who viewed Amy's exploitation.

Using the principle of "joint and several liability," the burden would be on the wrongdoer to provide the victim (in this case, Amy) with restitution rather than the victim's responsibility to seek it out. The defendant is now taking his case to be heard before the Supreme Court (Paroline v. United States). Whatever the Supreme Court rules in Amy's case will dictate future restitution of child pornography victims like her.