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September 8, 2011

Second Circuit panel reverses child porn restitution award to "Amy"

The Second Circuit has today issued an important new opinion in the on-going saga concerning whether and how the kids victimized by being featured in illegal child pornography can secure restitution awards from defendants who downloaded these pictures via the internet.  The panel opinion in US v. Aumais, No. 10-3160 (2d Cir. Sept. 8, 2011) (available here), gets started this way:

Gerald Aumais (“Aumais”) appeals from an Amended Judgment of Conviction entered on August 3, 2010 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Sharpe, J.). Aumais pleaded guilty to transporting and possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252A(a)(1), and (a)(5)(B). The district court sentenced Aumais to 121 months’ imprisonment and ordered him, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2259, to pay $48,483 in restitution to finance future counseling costs of “Amy” (a pseudonym), one of the victims depicted in the images and videos. Aumais challenges the restitution order on the ground that his possession was not a proximate cause of Amy’s loss. Aumais also argues that the district court committed procedural and substantive error in sentencing him to 121 months’ imprisonment.   We conclude that: based on the facts in this case, Aumais’ possession of Amy’s images was not a substantial factor in causing her loss; and that the district court committed no procedural or substantive error in imposing the sentence of imprisonment.  Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

And here are the key concluding paragraphs in the court's restitution analysis from the later part of Chief Judge Jacobs' opinion for the panel (with cites omitted and emphasis in original):

The magistrate judge found that “Amy had no direct contact with Aumais nor even knew of his existence.” Amy’s Victim Impact Statement makes no mention of Aumais (or any other possessor of her images for that matter). Moreover, Dr. Silberg’s evaluation of Amy, upon which the doctor’s testimony was based, took place on June 11-12, 2008, July 29, 2008, and November 10, 2008, whereas Aumais was not arrested at the border until November 16, 2008. While Dr. Silberg may describe generally what Amy suffers from knowing that people possess her images, Dr. Silberg cannot speak to the impact on Amy caused by this defendant.... Here, in the absence of evidence linking Aumais’ possession to any loss suffered by Amy, we cannot agree with the magistrate judge’s conclusion that “Aumais’ conduct remains a substantial cause of [Amy’s] harm.”

This opinion does not categorically foreclose payment of restitution to victims of child pornography from a defendant who possesses their pornographic images.  We have no basis for rejecting Dr. Silberg’s findings that Amy has  suffered greatly and will require counseling well into the future.  But where the Victim Impact Statement and the psychological evaluation were drafted before the defendant  was even arrested -- or might as well have been -- we hold as a  matter of law that the victim’s loss was not proximately caused by a defendant’s possession of the victim’s image.

It will be very interesting to see whether prosecutors or the folks who have been representing "Amy" and other victims in seeking restitutional awards will pursue further review of this ruling.  The forcefulness of this ruling (which comes on the heels of a similar pro-defendant ruling from the Ninth Circuit a few months ago) may lead many child porn defendants, and even those outside of the Second Circuit, to resist even more forcefully these kind of restitution claims in district courts.  For that reason (and others), those who advocate for restitution awards in these kinds of cases may be especially eager to at least try to have Aumais further reviewed.

Some related recent federal child porn restitution posts:

September 8, 2011 at 12:47 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I think it's fair that those who download images of children being abused pay restitution, because the downloading, viewing and enjoyment do add to the injury. ($48k may be a bit excessive.)

It seems that the victim impact statements need to do a better job documenting the harm done by this secondary victimization. So, can victim impact statements includes responses to questions like the harm that is done by knowing people search out certain series of pictures, that they come across them and feel they are so good they want to own them, that they enjoy having local copies so that they can look at them all the time, they they do look at them when they feel like it, and that they masturbate to the pictures and/or use them for fantasies.

With this info, victims would not need to be asked about the harm done by a specific John Doe having pictures. Sentencing might need to then cover more information about a defendant's habits and use of the pictures. But there would be more info for deserved restitution.

Posted by: Paul | Sep 10, 2011 8:54:30 AM

Thanks for your time and effort to provide this vital information. I appreciate what you are trying to emphasize.

Posted by: Counseling Jacksonville Fl | Sep 11, 2011 10:17:03 AM

Can you say Minority Report?

Posted by: Huh? | Sep 12, 2011 10:04:27 PM

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