Paroline v. United States

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LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Paroline v. United States.


What causal relationship must exist between a defendant's conduct and a victim's harm for the victim to recover restitution in a child pornography case under 18 U.S.C 2259?

Oral argument: 
January 22, 2014

Doyle Paroline was convicted of possessing 150 to 300 images of minors being sexually abused, including two images of Respondent “Amy” being abused by her uncle at the age of eight or nine years old. The Supreme Court will settle a circuit split over the required causal relationship between a defendant’s possession and a victim’s harm in order for the victim to recover full restitution under 18 U.S.C § 2259. Paroline argues that a victim’s damages must be proximately caused by the defendant’s conduct because any other result would turn child exploitation restitution proceedings into a procedural nightmare. Amy argues that § 2259 does not require proximate causation for a victim to be entitled to full damages; otherwise, the victims of child abuse would bear the burden of collecting tiny shares of restitution from several defendants and might never receive full recovery. The Court’s ruling will impact the rights of exploited children and the procedural rights afforded to those charged with possessing child pornography.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

The Fifth Circuit held, contrary to the holdings of every other circuit considering the question, that there was no requirement that restitution be limited to losses proximately caused by the defendant's criminal acts and that the defendant is responsible for restitution for all losses suffered by the victim regardless of whether the defendant's criminal acts proximately caused the loss and the victim's losses occurred prior to the defendant's indictment and arrest.

  1. In determining restitution in child pornography cases pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2259(b)(3), is the award of restitution limited to losses proximately caused by the defendant's criminal actions or may a defendant be required to pay restitution for all losses, regardless of whether his criminal acts proximately caused the loss?
  2. Whether the Government is correct in its argument that authorizing $3.4 million in restitution against a defendant to a victim of child pornography who has never had contact with the defendant may violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines in the absence of a proximate cause requirement in the setting of the amount of restitution assessed against that defendant.



Respondent, a young adult under the pseudonym “Amy,” was sexually abused by her uncle when she was eight or nine years old. Amy’s uncle took a number of photographs depicting her in sexually abusive poses, captured his acts on film, and distributed the materials over the Internet. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that at least 35,000 images of Amy’s abuse have been found and used as evidence in over 3,200 child pornography cases since 1998. Restitution for Amy has been ordered in at least 174 child pornography cases in amounts ranging from $100 to $3,543,471.

Petitioner Doyle Paroline (“Paroline”) pled guilty to one count of possessing 150 to 300 images of minors being sexually exploited in violation of . Two of the sexually abusive images were of Amy when she was eight or nine. The government, on Amy’s behalf, sought restitution pursuant to the Crime Victim’s Rights Act and ordered restitution under . Using her psychiatrist’s report, Amy's future damages for treatment and total damages were estimated at near $3.4 million. Section 2259 directs a defendant to pay the victim the full amount of the victim’s losses as determined by the court. For purposes of the statute, the “full amount” includes costs incurred by the victim for medical services, necessary transportation, lost income, and “any other losses suffered by the victim as a proximate result of the offence.”

The district court denied restitution to Amy, holding that § 2259 requires the Government to establish that the injury giving way to restitution damages was proximately caused by Paroline’s possession of the images depicting Amy’s sexual abuse. On appeal, a panel reviewed Amy’s challenge for the denial of restitution in the case regarding Paroline and also in a case regarding Michael Wright (“Wright”). Like Paroline, Wright pled guilty to possessing child pornography, including some images of Amy’s abuse. The panel rejected the district court’s holding and focused on the language of § 2259, holding that the statute does not limit recoverable losses to those proximately caused by the defendant’s conduct. Consolidating Paroline’s and Wright’s cases, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that § 2259 requires proximate causation in § 2259(b)(3)(F) but not for losses stemming from § 2259(b)(3)(A)-(E). The Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 27, 2013.



This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to settle a circuit split over the interpretation of § 2259, a federal statute that addresses restitution for child-abuse victims. Paroline argues that § 2259 requires that a victim’s damages be proximately caused by the defendant’s conduct because any other result would turn restitution proceedings into procedural nightmares. Amy argues that § 2259 does not require proximate causation for a victim to be entitled to full damages; otherwise, the victims of child abuse would bear the burden of collecting tiny shares of restitution that might prevent full recovery. The Supreme Court’s decision will have major implications for those found guilty of possessing child pornography and may force such individuals to seek contribution payments from other convicted offenders in the absence of proximate cause.


Supporters of Paroline argue that imposing strict liability for all damages to those individuals found guilty of possessing child pornography would result in grossly disproportionate awards in restitution that would raise Eighth Amendment concerns. Additionally, the supporters claim, because there is no evidence that Paroline’s victimless conduct caused Amy’s damages, Paroline is being held liable for $3.4 million, for someone else’s harmful conduct. Paroline further argues that this would result in punitive restitution, imposing obligations on future child pornography offenders before their criminal acts occurred. This raises the risk of grossly disproportionate penalties and jail time where offenders who look at pictures of sexually-exploited children can spend more years in prison and pay more in damages than the people who sexually abused those children.

Supporters of Amy argue that because images of child abuse are readily obtainable and exchangeable over the Internet, victims suffer irreparable harm long after the crime since those images can remain on the Internet forever and thus cause victims like Amy to live in fear of being recognized in public. Because producers of child pornography are motivated and encouraged to create more images due to possessors’ demand, the receipt, possession, and distribution of those images fuels an industry that directly leads to more sexual abuse of children. The Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project argues that harm to victims of child pornography results from aggregation, meaning that each act of possession and distribution of child-abuse images contributes independently and continuously to victims’ harm because each act contributes to the demand for materials exploiting children. Eliminating proximate cause and imposing full payments on possessors of child pornography will deter these possessors from buying child porn and will lower demand.


Paroline argues that applying joint and several liability for restitution in a case spanning years and involving multiple offender–defendants in multiple jurisdictions would result in a procedural nightmare for the courts. He argues that applying this method ignores the problematic cases in which Amy chooses not to seek restitution or where it is unclear whether the government or the defendant has a right to intervene in order to ensure that all convicted defendants pay their share of restitution. This would result in some defendants escaping restitution obligations while others are forced to shoulder the full burden.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children argues that joint and several liability is necessary because the injury caused by child pornography is a perpetual and indivisible harm not capable of any logical or reasonable division. Because victims’ trauma results from the collective whole of the acts of various offenders, using proximate cause to allocate a victim’s damages caused by multiple offender–defendants is not feasible. As each individual offender is a substantial factor of the indivisible whole of the harm, joint and several liability allows for a full recovery for the victim and places the burden of seeking damages on those guilty of creating, producing, possessing, and distributing the images of child abuse.



The Court will address (1) the causation requirement for restitution in child pornography cases under 18 U.S.C. § 2259 and (2) how the damages should be divided among several offender–defendants. Paroline asserts that in any criminal case for damages, the victim must always show proximate cause by proving that the defendant’s specific actions harmed the victim in a specific way. Amy argues that the statute does not require a showing of proximate cause because the actual language of the statute and congressional intent do not require it. The United States argues that the damages should be allocated amongst a pool of similarly-situated defendants after the victim shows aggregate causation for the harm.

Is Proximate Cause Required for restitution claims?

Paroline argues, and other circuit courts have held, that a victim must show proximate cause between a defendant’s crime and the victim’s loss before courts may order restitution. Without the proximate cause requirement, Paroline asserts that restitution in every criminal sentence will be determined through a strict liability standard where a defendant’s conduct is irrelevant. Furthermore, strict liability for restitution would be unfair for a defendant because the defendant would be responsible for all losses identified by the victim, even those outside of the defendant’s temporal violation. Paroline asserts that neither Amy nor the government produced evidence that Paroline’s conduct directly caused Amy’s damages because Amy was unaware that Paroline, specifically, had images of Amy’s abuse.

Amy argues for a broad reading of § 2259 in order to ensure that exploited children are fully compensated. In Amy’s view, a showing of cause-in-fact is required to demonstrate that a defendant’s crime harmed the victim. Amy explains that Congress enacted § 2259 to eliminate the demand for child pornography and the consequent sexual exploitation of children. Therefore, sexual child abuse would decline exponentially if people like Paroline did not download such pornography. Amy claims that Congress intentionally chose to exclude the terms “proximate” and “direct” from the definition of “victim” in § 2259 but chose to include it in other parts of federal restitution statutes. Moreover, Amy notes, the Court has ruled that in Federal Employers Liability Act ("FELA") cases, there is no proximate cause requirement; in these cases, the absence of this requirement has not led to limitless liability because FELA limits the subject matter of suits and the parties who can initiate suits. Amy contends that § 2259 operates like FELA and has more safeguards against limitless liability by restricting who can seek liability and by following a payment schedule that accounts for a defendant’s ability to pay.

Does the Statutory Construction call for proximate cause?

Paroline claims that in determining statutory language, the Court should look at the plain language of § 2259, the legislative history, congressional intent, and the Rule of Lenity. Paroline insists that, like other criminal and tort statutes, when the plain language of the statute is read in its entirety, proximate cause is required. In addition, Paroline reads a proximate cause requirement into the plain language of the statutory definition of “victim.” Section 2259 defines victim as an “individual harmed as a result of a commission of a crime.” Paroline argues that “results from” is naturally understood to require proof of two types of causation—“but for” and proximate cause—because the crime requires a specific act to cause a specific harm. Moreover, Paroline argues that section 2259’s legislative history shows that Congress intended proximate cause as a feature of the restitution statutes. Specifically, Paroline cites Congress’s express intent for proximate cause when enacting the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA), which includes § 2259. If the statute’s plain language and legislative history are still ambiguous, Paroline maintains that the Court should apply the Rule of Lenity, which resolves ambiguous provisions in a defendant’s favor.

Amy argues that the plain language, drafting history, and congressional purpose of § 2259 do not, implicitly or explicitly, require victims to demonstrate proximate cause. Amy disagrees with Paroline’s assertion that the plain language of the statute contains a proximate cause showing. Amy contends that when a victim asserts that she is in fact the victim under the statute’s definition, then she has shown the necessary causation. Additionally, Amy argues that the list of included costs in the statute shows that only the last category contains a proximate cause requirement. Additionally, reading in a proximate cause requirement would frustrate Congress’s purpose of compensating victims of sexual abuse. Even if proximate cause is the proper requirement, Amy believes that she can make a showing of this cause. Finally, Amy disagrees with the application of the Rule of Lenity to restitution damages because the Rule applies only when a statute remains ambiguous after considering its text, history, and purpose; Amy believes that § 2259 is not ambiguous due to Congress’s clear intent to ensure victims receive full compensation.

Is Joint and Several Liability appropriate in restitution claims?

Paroline asserts that the Fifth Circuit’s decision to interpret the restitution damages as a joint and severally liable offense was incorrect. Paroline states that because restitution awards under this statute are limited to harms that the defendant proximately caused, this “but for” requirement must be shown. Although Amy has persuasively argued that possession of child pornography causes additional harm to the victim, Paroline argues that she has not shown that Paroline’s possession of Amy’s images was a necessary or sufficient cause of her losses. Paroline contends that the cross-referenced 18 U.S.C. § 3664, which dictates the procedures for enforcing restitution, implies that joint and several liability may only be imposed when a judge is dealing with multiple defendants in a single case. Additionally, Paroline argues that the restitution damages here are excessive and violate the Eighth Amendment, which limits the government’s power to extract payments for offenses.

Amy argues that when choosing to compensate vulnerable victims or equalizing liability of intentional crimes, the common law and Congress side with the victim by imposing broad joint and several liability among defendants. Indeed, § 2259 cross-references § 3664, which allows for joint and several liability. Also, Amy contends that joint and several liability furthers Congress’s intent for victims to be fully compensated. Without this type of liability, awarding restitution damages would create many procedural problems because courts would have to determine each defendant’s proportional share of Amy’s losses. In response to Paroline,Amy asserts that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines does not apply to restitution because these damages are payable to the victim as compensation for her losses and are not criminal penalties payable to the public treasury.

The United States agrees that Amy should receive restitution even though the Court of Appeals adopted the wrong causation approach. The United States argues that the central causation issue is how to divide damages among several defendants, but that the answer lies in the doctrine of factual causation, not proximate cause, as Paroline suggests. The United States maintains that a defendant must be the cause-in-fact of the victim’s harm, which can be found by aggregating causation in cases like this with multiple defendants. The United States’ aggregate causation theory requires the victim to show that he or she was harmed by the actions of all the defendants, and thus does not require a specific link to particular losses caused by an individual defendant’s conduct.



This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to settle a circuit split and to determine the causation requirement for restitution to child exploitation victims. Paroline and his supporters argue that, in order for joint and several liability to apply to possessors of child pornography, victims must show proximate cause. On the other hand, Amy and her supporters believe that proximate cause is not necessary to hold Paroline liable for the full amount of damages. The Court’s decision implicates child exploitation victims’ ability to recover restitution and the potential penalties for child pornography offenders.


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