Paroline v. United States: Fascinating, Sad Debate Over How Much a Man Should Pay a Victim of Pornography

January 29, 2014 by David S. Seltzer

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a fascinating cybercrime case, Paroline v. United States, that concerns how much money a person should pay a victim of pornography.

The victim in this case -- an anonymous woman known by the court as Amy Unknown -- had been raped as a girl by her uncle, who then disseminated pictures of the assault on the web, where the assault was viewed by thousands of people. The awful rape and its aftermath caused serious emotional problems for Amy, and a Court decided that she suffered $3.4 million in damages. Authorities ultimately arrested and convicted the uncle – and forced him to serve time in prison – but he only paid $6,000 in restitution.

So how was Amy supposed to collect the rest of her damages?

Enter Doyle Randall Paroline, a Texas man who pled guilty five years ago to charges of possession of 300 images of child pornography. Among those images were two pictures of Amy. The justice system convicted Paroline of child pornography possession and sentenced him to jail. But how much money – out of the $3.4 million owed to Amy – should Paroline himself have to pay? According to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Paroline should be on the hook for all of it, or, in the court’s words: “the full amount of the victim’s losses.”

Twenty years ago, Congress clarified that victims of pornography should be able to collect restitution from people who have viewed pornography. The main issue in Paroline v. United States is: how much, if any, of the $3.4 million owed to Amy should be paid by Paroline?

Some legal scholars, such as Paul Cassell of the University of Utah, interpret Congress’s intent to mean that victims in crimes such as sex offenses, domestic violence and pornography should get “full restitution as quickly and effectively as possible.” By this logic, the first defendant in such cases should be on the hook for as much as possible. In other words, victims should not have to hunt down defendant after defendant to collect the full amount owed.

Case in point: there have already been 182 defendants in the case of Amy Unknown, and they've collectively paid $1.75 million to her – still far short of the total money owed. Plus, the hunt for justice, so far, has taken nearly five years.

Paroline’s lawyers argued that their client should not have to pay anything, since the government has no way of proving that his viewing of the two images caused suffering. In other words, since so many people looked at the images, Paroline’s contribution to the suffering would have been diluted. Justice Elena Kagan disagreed, citing the following logic: “if only one person viewed the pornography, that person would be responsible for the entire damages, but if a thousand people viewed the pornography, and the harm was that much greater, nobody would be on the hook for the restitution? How could that possibly make sense?”

Justice John Roberts Jr., however, worried that apportioning so much financial burden on the first defendant in a case like this would lead to lopsided justice: it would be unfair to the first person in line and overly lenient on the 400th or 401st defendant.

University of Utah legal scholar, Cassell, pointed out in an analysis that Congress was not concerned about how restitution should be divided among defendants. Rather, Congress’s intent was to make sure that victims of child pornography crimes, domestic violence, etc., get paid early and with minimal drama. Cassell said “if there was a wealthy defendant who was unhappy with the share he had been ordered to pay, he could simply try to find other wealthy defendants out there and interplead them in some kind of case … [such a scenario would] lead to litigation concerns, but Congress wanted those burdens on guilty criminals rather than on innocent victims.”

In this situation, no one debated whether Paroline committed the crime of possession of child pornography. However, as Justice Antonin Scalia said: “he is guilty, he is guilty of the crime… but to sock him for all of her psychiatric costs and everything else because he had two pictures of her? Congress couldn’t have intended that."

Fortunately, you don’t have to parse such complicated matters of law yourself. If you or someone you love stands accused of a Florida cybercrime, connect with David Seltzer, P.A. today to explore your rights and defense options at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (888-843-3333), or email us anytime, 24/7 for a free and confidential consultation.