U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Standards for Restitution Orders
The court in Paroline crafted a new causation standard for awards of restitution following federal criminal convictions. As Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. noted in his dissent, the restitution statute at issue in this case is not limited to child-pornography cases. The court’s decision may thus affect a wide range of criminal cases, from fraud to conspiracy to civil rights.
Roberts’ dissent provides the key to this decision’s potential widespread application. The court’s decision seemed to speak more broadly than simply the child-pornography context, and its reasoning would seem to apply to federal crimes of violence, federal crimes against property, offenses relating to tampering with consumer products, domestic violence, telemarketing fraud and human trafficking, among others. Consequently, sentencing judges in those cases will surely be asked to impose restitution obligations based upon “the defendant’s relative role in the causal process that underlies the victim’s general losses,” even if the loss sustained as a result of the defendant’s particular crime is unknowable. The government can be expected to argue that Paroline eliminates factual causation as a prerequisite for imposing restitution on criminal defendants, so long as a defendant is “part of the overall phenomenon” that causes losses to a victim. That would be a dramatic expansion of restitution liability for criminal defendants – one that might not survive in a factual context as emotionally charged as child pornography.