Adult Victim of Child Pornography Production Seeks Criminal Restitution Payments

February 8, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

As a Fort Lauderdale child pornography possession defense attorney, I wrote last year about a Connecticut court’s decision to award financial restitution to a young woman who had been a child victim of child pornographers. This is an established practice in prosecutions of the people who make the child pornography. However, the Connecticut case was the first that I had heard of in which a court ordered restitution from a defendant who was accused of downloading and distributing the objectionable materials, and had no contact at all with the young woman. At the time, the Connecticut Law Tribune reported that the case may have set a precedent for similar restitution orders.

That may have come true, at least according to a Feb. 8 article from the Associated Press. That article noted the Connecticut ruling, but said hundreds more requests for restitution have been filed nationwide since then. Many, but not all, of them are from the same young woman involved in the Connecticut case, identified here as Amy. Amy was eight or nine when her uncle abused her and took pictures. He’s in prison now, but the pictures are widely available online. Amy and other victims claim in court papers that they’re re-victimized every time a new person downloads one of “their” pictures. They find out about the prosecutions through the National Crime Victim Rights Center, which was created by federal law to notify victims about criminal trials. Amy’s attorney said he requests $3.4 million in each case, but doesn’t expect to receive nearly that much.

According to the AP, courts have been mixed in their response to these requests. Some have denied restitution, but at least two courts in Florida have awarded restitution of more than $3.2 million. Several others have awarded much smaller amounts, as symbolic penalties or because defendants have a limited ability to pay. In one Minnesota case, the judge asked prosecutors why they didn’t request restitution for Amy. Restitution cases are on appeal, but the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court for Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, has already ruled on the practice. That court said restitution can be denied if the prosecution can’t show how much harm the defendant caused, but that ruling included a sharp dissent.

As a South Florida child pornography possession criminal defense attorney, I think the requests for restitution are understandable, but legally weak. Under the law, restitution can be ordered only for exploitation of a child. Victims claiming restitution say they are exploited with each new download, but they can mean it only in the abstract, because a download is an act that happens without harming them, and in fact without their involvement. Furthermore, the goal of restitution is to keep criminals from making a financial profit from wrongful acts. Profit is a clear part of the crime of making child pornography, but it’s hard to show a financial profit from mere possession. Thus, I believe the restitution requests are inappropriate in child pornography possession cases.

At least one expert in the article suggested that restitution requests for child pornography victims belong in the civil courts -- that is, victims should sue rather than request money through a criminal case. This may be a sensible compromise, because civil courts are better suited to work out the complicated question of when child pornography exploits a child. In a criminal case, the court’s job is to determine whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- not to determine financial payments. But whether such cases are moved to the civil courts is ultimately up to the federal appeals courts, and probably the U.S. Supreme Court. As a Miami-Dade child pornography possession defense attorney, I hope those courts think seriously about the purpose of the restitution law and the difficulties of clarifying it in criminal courts.