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Post-argument debate on Paroline

The three-way dispute in the test case before the Supreme Court on payments due to victims from those possessing child pornography has continued beyond the oral argument held on January 22.  The extra briefs filed at the Court’s request debate whether the outcome in this case — Paroline v. United States — should be influenced by what the Court decided last month in Burrage v. United States.

Both cases involve ways to interpret words in federal laws that make a form of punishment vary, depending on whether a specific harm resulted from the actions of the individual convicted of a federal crime.  The Court decided in the Burrage case that prosecutors had to show that the harm was the direct result of the criminal’s actions to get an enhanced sentence for a heroin crime when the customer died; it was not enough, the Court ruled, to prove that those actions were only a contributing cause.  The new briefs take three contrasting positions on whether that approach should apply when the Court decides the Paroline case and rules on whether a child pornography victim’s injuries must be traced to a specific individual’s possession of such material, for that individual to have to pay some or all of the damages done.

The young woman identified in the Paroline case as the victim — “Amy Unknown” — took the position in her supplemental brief that an individual who possessed pornographic images of her should be assessed the full amount of damages, even if that individual’s possession only contributed to her injury.  Burrage involved a criminal law that had to be interpreted narrowly, her filing contended, but the restitution issue is a part of traditional tort remedy law.

That brief was filed on February 11, and it prompted the Court to call for added briefs on Burrage‘s potential impact from the Justice Department and from the convicted individual, Doyle Randall Paroline, of Tyler, Texas.  Both of those briefs were filed last Friday.

The Justice Department, making an argument similar to the one it had advanced at the merits stage and in oral argument, said the key to Paroline‘s outcome is defining cause of harm and then apportioning the blame — that is, the amount of restitution an individual should be assessed comparatively for once having possessed the victim’s image in a pornographic display.  That can, and should be, divided up, it argued.  Burrage, the new brief said, involved a criminal sentencing factor, so the Court could properly require a direct cause-and-effect relationship in the death of the heroin buyer before the law would permit a longer prison sentence that was keyed to death.

If the Court in Paroline decides, the Department added, to require a direct causal effect of possession with harm, that can be proved in Doyle Paroline’s case because each possession did cause harm to “Amy Unknown.”   The Court, it added, “should not find actual cause missing in this case.”

Doyle Paroline’s supplemental brief argued that the statutory language at issue in both cases was similar, and both require “the same causal relationship” between the conviction and the consequence that flows from it — an enhanced sentence in Burrage, a restitution obligation in Paroline.

“The Burrage decision,” this filing contended, “rests not upon any defined term peculiar to that statute, but upon the ordinary meaning of the words ‘results from.'”   If prosecutors there were required to show that the death resulted directly from the heroin sale, so in Paroline must an advocate of restitution show that the specific individual convicted of possessing did cause the harm before being required to provide any payment to the victim.

The Court will not hold additional argument based on the new briefs; the Justices presumably will factor them into their continuing deliberations on Paroline’s fate.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Post-argument debate on Paroline, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 12, 2014, 5:08 PM),