Court Upholds Restitution Order for Child Victim of Sex Trafficking – U.S. v. Palmer and U.S. v. Baraku

July 5, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

I wrote recently about restitution orders for child pornography defendants, from my perspective as a child porn possession criminal defense attorney. Another restitution case caught my attention today, but this one involves people who were in the business of selling a child’s sexual services over the Internet. In United States v. Palmer and United States v. Baraku, defendants Debra Palmer and Todd Baraku were convicted of operating an illicit online sex business, for which they trained Palmer’s 12-year-old daughter as a dominatrix, then sold her services in person and over a webcam from ages 14 to 17. Baraku, who lived with Palmer and the girl, was also permitted to have BDSM sex with the girl. Both defendants pleaded guilty in 2009 to various charges and received restitution orders as well as prison sentences.

At Palmer’s sentencing, an expert witness testified that the girl would likely need $1 million in restitution for therapy and medication. Palmer’s defense disputed only the amount, saying the expert had no basis for the $1 million amount. The expert did not meet the girl, but relied on his past experience treating victims of child sexual crimes. Ultimately, the district court granted $200,000 in restitution from Palmer and Baraku, saying the evidence for the larger amount was speculative and $200,000 ought to cover counseling. Importantly, it set special conditions for their payments, ordering each to pay until $5,000 was in a fund for the victim, then make payments to keep it at a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $200,000. Both parties appealed, with the government objecting to the special conditions and defendants to the amount.

The Eighth Circuit agreed in part and reversed in part. The restitution law, 18 USC sec. 3664, allows courts to order “partial payments at specified intervals.” However, the court said, the requirement to meet or exceed $5,000 does not meet that test because it is not a “specified interval” as required. In effect, the court said, the original restitution order made restitution not mandatory and forced the victim to seek reimbursement for out-of-pocket costs rather than providing payment. However, it denied the cross-appeal seeking to nullify all restitution, saying the victim’s need for treatment was clear and pointing to her personal testimony that she was seeking it. It upheld the $200,000 restitution order but vacated the $5,000-minimum special condition for both defendants.

As a cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I’m interested in the restitution order because it could have a direct effect on restitution payments for clients accused of online child sex crimes. The Eighth Circuit said here that restitution orders cannot depart from the “partial payments at specified intervals” language in the statute, even if the departure is a concession to what is realistic — in this case, the defendants’ inability to make money while imprisoned. As a solicitation of a child online defense attorney, I would encourage defendants to consider possible restitution orders before deciding whether to plead guilty.

If you’re accused of a crime involving the Internet or other technology, your case could turn on very specific technical questions. To get the best possible defense, you should call Seltzer Law, P.A. Lead attorney David Seltzer is a former cyber crime prosecutor from the Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s office and has significant experience with the way prosecutors build cyber crime cases. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us a message online or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

Similar blog posts:

Federal Appeals Court Partially Reverses Restitution Order – United States v. Michael Wright

Federal Appeals Court Ruling Loosens Standard of Proof for Child Porn Compensation

Adult Victim of Child Pornography Production Seeks Criminal Restitution Payments