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An Important Victims’ Restitution Case in the Fifth Circuit

| April 24, 2012

A woman identified by the pseudonym “Amy” was the victim of child sexual abuse. The abuse was photographed, and the pornographic images are widely circulated on the internet. An East Texas man named Doyle Paroline is one of the individuals who has viewed the images. Authorities found two images of Amy among 280 images of child pornography on Paroline’s computer. He pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in 2009, and he was sentenced to federal prison.

At Paroline’s sentencing, Amy sought over $3.3 million in restitution from Paroline, pursuant to the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. 18 U.S.C. § 3771(a)(6). She arrived at the $3.3 million figure by combining her lost income, attorney’s fees, and the cost of her psychological counseling. The trial court, however, denied her restitution request, holding that in order to recover the restitution, Amy was required to demonstrate that Paroline – rather than the thousands of other individuals who have viewed the images – “proximately caused” her injury.

In March of 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the trial court in a case styled In re Amy Unknown. The appellate court, in an opinion by Judge Edith Jones, held that there is no proximate cause requirement in the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, and thus the district court had erred in insisting that proximate cause be demonstrated.

This, however, was not the end of the story because in early 2011, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reached precisely the opposite conclusion. In U.S. v. McDaniel, Judge Charles Wilson’s opinion concluded that the Crime Victims’ Rights Act did include a “proximate cause” requirement. Shortly, thereafter, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Eleventh Circuit in U.S. v. Monzel.

Next Thursday, the Fifth Circuit will rehear In re Amy, along with their decision in U.S. v. Wright, yet another case involving a restitution claim by Amy. In Wright, Judge W. Eugene Davis directly urged the appeals court to grant a rehearing en banc to consider the vexing “proximate cause” question.

It is an important question and one with obviously significant consequences for victims’ restitution. If the Fifth Circuit once again interprets the statute as lacking a proximate cause requirement, then the circuit split will remain, and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will feel the need to decide the matter.

For more on this case, see Professor Doug Berman’s comments or these comments from former federal Judge Paul Cassell, who represents Amy before the Fifth Circuit.

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