By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a man convicted of possessing child pornography is only required to pay a proportion of the total damages that victims can seek in restitution.
The decision ended confusion within the federal judiciary about how to assess the amount convicts could be ordered to pay under a restitution law enacted in 1994 as part of the Violence Against Women Act over digital photographs distributed on the Internet and viewed by thousands of people.
The nine justices were divided, with five saying that defendants should be required to pay a limited amount but not a token or nominal one. Three justices said the law did not allow for any restitution in the case by the victim, named only as Amy, from a Brownsboro, Texas man, Doyle Paroline, who was convicted of possessing child pornography that included two photographs of her.
Amy was sexually abused by an uncle starting in 1997 when she was 8 years old. The uncle made images of the abuse that have been put on the Internet, where Paroline acquired them.
Amy demanded $3.4 million in total from different people convicted of possessing pictures of her being sexually abused. The number is based in part on the lifetime cost of psychological counseling and lost earnings. Amy so far has collected around $1.75 million, her lawyer Paul Cassell said.
Cassell told the court during the oral argument in January that an estimated 70,000 people had viewed the images.
In Wednesday's decision, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said that although Amy deserved restitution, the way the law was written "makes it impossible to award that relief to Amy in this case."
Amy's case is one of several in which victims are seeking restitution from people who obtained pictures of sexual abuse online, but it is the only one to reach the high court following a lower court's decision that restitution of the full amount was required.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a separate opinion saying she would favor allowing victims to seek the maximum amount available from each person convicted of possessing the image.
Sotomayor wrote that Paroline should be ordered to pay the full amount of Amy's losses as demanded by Amy.
Writing on behalf of the five-member majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the amount of damages sought from each convicted person must be based on the proportion of the harm that person caused to the victim.
"Of course the victim should someday collect restitution for all her child pornography losses, but it makes sense to spread payment among a larger proportion of offenders in amounts more closely in proportion to their respective ... roles," Kennedy wrote.
Lower courts will determine how much Paroline will eventually be ordered to pay. Paroline has said he should only be liable for his individual role.
The case is Paroline v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-8561
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)