U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear Child Pornography Restitution Case

Individuals convicted of possessing child pornography face stiff criminal penalties under both state and federal law. In addition to those criminal penalties, federal law also requires people convicted of possessing internet child pornography to pay restitution to the children whose images are depicted in the pornographic films or photographs.

The statute requires defendants in child pornography cases to “pay to the victim the full amount of losses determined by the court.” Those losses can include costs for medical or psychological treatment, therapy or rehabilitative services, lost income, attorney’s fees or any other loss caused by the victim’s depiction in child pornography.

How these costs should be determined – and to whom they should be apportioned – is a major legal controversy. Some courts have balked at charging mere possessors who had no actual contact with the victim the same amount of money as the people who actually committed the sexual act or created the pornography. Others have ordered convicted possessors to pay millions of dollars.

Victim Asked Supreme Court to Resolve the Dispute

Recently a child pornography victim, who was awarded only a small amount of restitution, appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States to resolve the issue of appropriate restitution.

The case arose from a Washington, D.C. child porn investigation. A man was found with over 800 images of child pornography. After an aggressive defense, he ultimately pled guilty to one count of distributing child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography.

Experts were able to ascertain the identity of 30 children depicted in the images. One of them requested over $3 million in restitution.

Instead, the court awarded her $5,000. In doing so, it acknowledged that the money did not compensate Amy for all of the harm she suffered. Instead, the award was intended to represent the harm the man caused by possessing images of the girl.

The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, causing even further confusion around the statute’s interpretation.

To date, four U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have favored a more limited application of the restitution law. Only one – the Fifth Circuit, which represents Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – has interpreted the law to demand full restitution from child pornography possessors.

The issue is still unresolved in Maryland. To date, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals – which represents Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina – has not ruled on the issue of victim restitution.