Paroline v. United States
572 U.S. ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary
The victim was sexually abused as a young girl during production of child pornography. When she was 17, she learned that images of her abuse were being trafficked on the Internet. Paroline pleaded guilty to possessing images of child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252, including two of the victim, who sought restitution under section 2259--about $3 million in lost income and $500,000 for future treatment and counseling. The district court declined to award restitution, citing failure to prove proximate cause. The Fifth Circuit held that each defendant who possessed the victim’s images should be held liable for the victim’s entire losses. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 2259 restitution is proper only to the extent the defendant’s offense proximately caused a victim’s losses. The prosecution has the burden of demonstrating the amount of the loss and proximate cause. Victims should be compensated and defendants should be held liable for the impact of their conduct on those victims, but not for the conduct of others. In this case, it is simple to prove aggregate losses: the victim’s costs of treatment and lost income resulting from the trauma of knowing that images of her abuse are being viewed over and over are direct and foreseeable results of child-pornography crimes. It is not possible, however, to prove that the victim’s losses would be less “but for’ one possessor’s individual role in the large, loosely connected network through which her images circulate. While it would be anomalous to deny redress to a person harmed by the combined acts of many wrongdoers simply because no wrongdoer alone caused the harm, aggregate causation logic should not be adopted incautiously for criminal restitution. The victim’s proposed theory would pose problems because there is no general federal right to contribution and no specific statutory authorization in this case; her approach could also raise questions under the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause. A court should order restitution that comports with the defendant’s relative role in the causal process underlying the victim’s general losses. A variety of factors may serve as guideposts in arriving at the relative causal significance of the defendant’s conduct. Congress has not promised victims full and swift restitution at the cost of holding a defendant liable for an amount drastically out of proportion to his individual causal relation to those losses.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

PAROLINE v. UNITED STATES et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 12–8561. Argued January 22, 2014—Decided April 23, 2014

The respondent victim in this case was sexually abused as a young girl in order to produce child pornography. When she was 17, she learned that images of her abuse were being trafficked on the Internet, in effect repeating the original wrongs, for she knew that her humiliation and hurt would be renewed well into the future as thousands of additional wrongdoers witnessed those crimes. Petitioner Paroline pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing images of child pornography, which included two of the victim, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §2252. The victim then sought restitution under §2259, requesting nearly $3 million in lost income and about $500,000 in future treatment and counseling costs. The District Court declined to award restitution, concluding that the Government had not met its burden of proving what losses, if any, were proximately caused by Paroline’s offense. The victim sought a writ of mandamus, asking the Fifth Circuit to direct the District Court to order Paroline to pay restitution. Granting the writ on rehearing en banc, the Fifth Circuit held, inter alia, that §2259 did not limit restitution to losses proximately caused by the defendant, and that each defendant who possessed the victim’s images should be made liable for the victim’s entire losses from the trade in her images.

Held: 

     1. Restitution is proper under §2259 only to the extent the defendant’s offense proximately caused a victim’s losses. This provision has a broad restitutionary purpose, stating that a district court “shall order restitution for any offense” under Chapter 110 of Title 18, such as Paroline’s possession offense; requiring district courts to order defendants “to pay the victim . . . the full amount of the victim’s losses as determined by the court,” §2259(b)(1); and expressly making “issuance of a restitution order . . . mandatory,” §2259(b)(4)(A). The Government has the “burden of demonstrating the amount of the [victim’s] loss.” §3664(e).

     To say one event proximately caused another means, first, that the former event caused the latter, i.e., actual cause or cause in fact; and second, that it is a proximate cause, i.e., it has a sufficient connection to the result. The concept of proximate causation is applicable in both criminal and tort law, and the analysis is parallel in many instances. Section 2259(c) defines a victim as “the individual harmed as a result of a commission of a crime under this chapter.” The words “as a result of” plainly suggest causation, and the referent of “a crime” is the offense of conviction. The “full amount of the victim’s losses,” §2259(b)(1), includes “any costs incurred by the victim” for six enumerated categories of expense, §2259(b)(3). The reference to “costs incurred by the victim” is most naturally understood as costs arising “as a result of” the offense of conviction, i.e., the defendant’s conduct. And the last of the six enumerated categories—for “other losses suffered . . . as a proximate result of the offense,” §2259(b)(3)(F)—clearly states that the causal requirement is one of proximate cause. This reading is supported by the canon of construction that, “[w]hen several words are followed by a clause which is applicable as much to the first and other words as to the last, the natural construction of the language demands that the clause be read as applicable to all.” Porto Rico Railway, Light & Power Co. v. Mor, 253 U. S. 345 . The reading also presents a commonsense way to impose sensible limitations on claims for attenuated costs. Pp. 5–11.

     2. Applying the statute’s causation requirements in this case, victims should be compensated and defendants should be held to account for the impact of their conduct on those victims, but defendants should only be made liable for the consequences and gravity of their own conduct, not the conduct of others. Pp. 11–25.

          (a) A somewhat atypical causal process underlies the losses here. It may be simple to prove aggregate losses, i.e., “general losses,” stemming from the ongoing traffic in the victim’s images, but the question for §2259 purposes is how much of these general losses were the “proximate result” of an individual defendant’s offense. Here, the victim’s costs of treatment and lost income resulting from the trauma of knowing that images of her abuse are being viewed over and over are direct and foreseeable results of child-pornography crimes, provided the prerequisite of factual causation is satisfied. The primary problem, then, is the proper standard of causation in fact. Pp. 11–12.

          (b) A showing of but-for causation is not the proper standard here, for it is not possible to prove that the victim’s losses would be less but for one possessor’s individual role in the large, loosely connected network through which her images circulate. The victim and the Government urge the Court to read §2259 to require a less restrictive causation standard in child-pornography cases like this. They endorse the theory of “aggregate causation,” one formulation of which finds factual causation satisfied where a wrongdoer’s conduct, though alone “insufficient . . . to cause the plaintiff’s harm,” is, “when combined with conduct by other persons,” “more than sufficient to cause the harm.” 1 Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physicaland Emotional Harm §27, Comment f. Tort law teaches that such alternative causal tests, though a kind of legal fiction, may be necessary to vindicate the law’s purposes, for it would be anomalous to turn away a person harmed by the combined acts of many wrongdoers simply because none of those wrongdoers alone caused the harm, and nonsensical to adopt a rule whereby individuals hurt by the combined wrongful acts of many would have no redress, while those hurt by the acts of one person alone would. These are sound principles. Taken too far, however, such alternative causal standards would treat each possessor as the cause in fact of all the trauma and attendant losses incurred as a result of all the ongoing traffic in the victim’s images. Aggregate causation logic should not be adopted in an incautious manner in the context of criminal restitution, which differs from tort law in numerous respects. Paroline’s contribution to the causal process underlying the victim’s losses was very minor, both compared to the combined acts of all other relevant offenders and compared to the contributions of other individual offenders, particularly distributors and the initial producer of the child pornography. Congress gave no indication that it intended the statute to be applied in an expansive manner so starkly contrary to the principle that restitution should reflect the consequences of the defendant’s own conduct. The victim claims that holding each possessor liable for her entire losses would be fair and practical in part because offenders can seek contribution from one another, but there is no general federal right to contribution and no specific statutory authorization for contribution here. Her severe approach could also raise questions under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 12–19.

          (c) While the victim’s expansive reading must be rejected, that does not mean the broader principles underlying aggregate causation theories are irrelevant to determining the proper outcome in cases like this. The cause of the victim’s general losses is the trade in her images, and Paroline is a part of that cause. Just as it undermines the purposes of tort law to turn away plaintiffs harmed by several wrongdoers, it would undermine §2259’s purposes to turn away victims in cases like this. With respect to the statute’s remedial purpose, there is no question that it would produce anomalous results to say that no restitution is appropriate in these circumstances, for harms of the kind the victim endured here are a major reason why child pornography is outlawed. The unlawful conduct of everyone who reproduces, distributes, or possesses images of the victim’s abuse—including Paroline—plays a part in sustaining and aggravating this tragedy. And there is no doubt Congress wanted restitution for such victims. Denying restitution would also be at odds with §2259’s penological purposes, which include the need to impress upon offenders that their conduct produces concrete and devastating harms for real, identifiable victims. Thus, where it can be shown both that a defendant possessed a victim’s images and that a victim has outstanding losses caused by the continuing traffic in her images but where it is impossible to trace a particular amount of those losses to the individual defendant utilizing a more traditional causal inquiry, a court should order restitution in an amount that comports with the defendant’s relative role in the causal process underlying the victim’s general losses.

     District courts should use discretion and sound judgment in determining the proper amount of restitution. A variety of factors may serve as guideposts. Courts might, as a start, determine the amount of the victim’s losses caused by the continuing traffic in the victim’s images, and then base an award on factors bearing on the relative causal significance of the defendant’s conduct in producing those losses. The victim finds this approach untenable because her losses are “indivisible,” but the Court is required to define a causal standard that effects the statute’s purposes, not to apply tort-law concepts in a mechanical way in the criminal restitution context. She also argues she will be consigned to “piecemeal” restitution that may never lead to full recovery, but Congress has not promised victims full and swift restitution at the cost of holding a defendant liable for an amount drastically out of proportion to his individual causal relation to those losses. Furthermore, this approach better effects the need to impress upon defendants that their acts are not irrelevant or victimless. Pp. 19–25.

          (d) Though this approach is not without difficulties, courts can only do their best to apply the statute as written in a workable manner, faithful to the competing principles at stake: that victims should be compensated and that defendants should be held to account for the impact of their own conduct, not the conduct of others. District courts, which routinely exercise wide discretion both in sentencing generally and in fashioning restitution orders, should be able to apply the causal standard defined here without further detailed guidance. P. 25.

701 F. 3d 749, vacated and remanded.

     Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

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