WASHINGTON U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared to struggle on Wednesday as they considered how much defendants convicted of possessing images of child pornography have to pay in restitution to victims.
Advocates for crime victims say there has been an explosion in the distribution of child pornography since the Internet made it much easier to exchange digital images.
The change in distribution model, which means the same image may have been viewed thousands of times, has created a problem for judges trying to assess how much restitution each defendant should pay.
Questions posed by the justices seemed to suggest they agreed all defendants convicted of possessing a copy of the same image should owe something to the victim, but they appeared unsure how to determine how much each defendant should be ordered to pay.
The court's ruling would not affect the total amount of money that victims can claim in restitution from multiple defendants but it could mean that some defendants end up paying less and others more.
The case concerns efforts by a victim, named only as Amy, to seek restitution from Doyle Paroline of Brownsboro, Texas, who was convicted of possessing child pornography that included two images of Amy. Amy's case is one of several around the country in which victims are seeking restitution from multiple defendants who have obtained images online.
Amy is seeking $3.4 million in total from different defendants. The number is based in part on the lifetime cost of psychological counseling and lost earnings.
Court papers said more than 150 courts have awarded Amy restitution but Paroline's is the only one before the Supreme Court. Amy so far has collected around $1.75 million, her lawyer, Paul Cassell, told the court on Wednesday.
Cassell argued that Paroline is liable for the full amount of her injury, while Paroline says he should only be liable for his individual role.
Throughout the one-hour oral argument, the justices seemed keen to find some kind of middle ground that would allow defendants to pay the proportion of restitution that reflects their individual crime.
Several justices pointed out that, under Paroline's analysis, defendants in cases involving images distributed online would pay little, if any, restitution.
"The woman has undergone serious psychological harm because of her knowledge that there are thousands of people out there viewing her rape," Justice Antonin Scalia told Paroline's lawyer, Stanley Schneider. "Why isn't your client at least responsible for some of that?"
But the justices also appeared troubled by the argument offered by Cassell, who said that Amy should be able to seek the $3.4 million from each defendant until she recovers it all and that it doesn't matter if one pays more than another.
"You are not claiming - or are you - that she's been victimized to the tune of $3.4 million as a result of this particular defendant's offense?" Justice Elena Kagan asked Cassell.
Amy was sexually abused by an uncle starting in 1997 when she was 8 years old. The uncle made images of the abuse that have been widely distributed on the Internet, which is where Paroline acquired them. Cassell told the court that an estimated 70,000 people had viewed the images.
A federal court initially denied Amy any restitution in Paroline's case but an appeals court said restitution of the full amount of the loss was required.
A ruling is due by the end of June. The case is Paroline v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, 12-8561.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Rosalind Russell)