Restitution for Victims of Child Pornography

Yesterday U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz of the District of Minnesota issued an interesting order regarding a restitution application in a child pornography case.   In his order, found here, Judge Schiltz chastises the government for failing to pursue restitution for child pornography cases in his district, even though Congress has made restitution mandatory in such cases.  Judge Schiltz wrote:

This Court has recently handled a number of other child-pornography cases in which the United States Probation Office has identified victims who are seeking restitution.  Notwithstanding the strict mandates of § 2259, the government has also declined to pursue restitution in those cases. Given the clear Congressional mandate that those convicted of child pornography offenses pay restitution to their victims, the Court will no longer accept silence from the government when an identified victim of a child-pornography offense seeks restitution.  If the government declines to seek restitution, the government will have to give the Court some explanation for its decision.

The statute that Judge Schiltz cites, found here, directs district courts to order restitution for the “full amount of the victim’s losses.”  In this particular case, a young girl who was raped and had pictures of the crime taken seeks several million dollars in restitution to pay for counseling and other expenses resulting from the crime. 

The victim has sought these damages not only from the defendant convicted in this case in Minnesota but more broadly from every defendant convicted of viewing the images taken of her  against her will.   For instance, she sought such restitution in Texas.  There, a federal district court judge ruled that she could not trace her injuries specifically to the particular defendant convicted in that case.  She sought mandamus relief in the Fifth Circuit, which held in a recent opinion that the district judge was not “clearly and indisputably” wrong in declining to order restitution for the girl.  [Full disclosure: in the district court, I filed a brief on behalf of the National Crime Victims Law Institute supporting the restitution application.] 

The issue of restitution in child pornography cases is an interesting and important one that seems destined to ultimately go to the U.S. Supreme Court.  My own view is that Congress drafted a very broad restitution statute designed to give the maximum possible recovery to victims of child pornography.  Moreover, if any doubt existed about how to interpret this remedial statute, it should be resolved in favor of the innocent victims of these offenses rather than the criminals who continue to cause injury by illegally possessing the pictures in question.