Child Porn Victims Trip|in Bid to Collect Damages

     CHICAGO (CN) – Child pornography victims seeking damages must show how a defendant’s possession of their photos injured them, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     This interpretation of the Criminal Victims’ Rights Act, which has divided federal courts, could significantly impact the degree to which child pornography victims can recover damages.
     Indiana man Christopher Laraneta pleaded guilty of violating federal pornography laws. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and lifelong supervised release. In addition, Laraneta was ordered to pay restitution to two women whose photos were found on his hard drive.
     “Amy” and “Vicky,” as they are identified in the court’s opinion, had both been raped as children. Photos of the crimes were posted online and eventually went viral, reaching thousands of Internet users.
     Now adults, Amy and Vicky have pursued compensation for the cost of therapy, lost income and other injuries caused by the photos’ dissemination.
     Amy has been awarded more than $3.3 million in damages in hundreds of criminal cases. She has managed to recover roughly half of the amount. Vicky’s damages amount to $1.2 million, about one-quarter of which she has recovered.
     In Laraneta’s case, U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano ordered the defendant to pay Amy the full $3.3 million. For Vicky, however, Lozano subtracted funds already received from other defendants, reducing her award from $1.2 million to around $900,000.
     When Laraneta appealed his sentence, Amy and Vicky asked to intervene.
     Though prosecutors argued that such intervention was inappropriate, the 7th Circuit allowed Amy and Vicky to submit briefs and participate in oral argument, saying that such intervention promoted judicial expedience.
     “If we reversed the award to Amy and Vicky and directed the District Court to vacate it, they could then seek mandamus, and if we denied it they could ask the Supreme Court to review the denial,” Judge Richard Posner wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “Allowing them to participate at this stage of the appellate process avoids a second trip to the appellate courts.”
     Crime victims must not be allowed to participate in criminal proceedings at the trial level, however, the court held.
     “Imagine plea bargaining in which intervening crime victims argue for a different bargain from that struck between the government and the defendant, or trials at which victims’ lawyers present witnesses and cross-examine the defendant’s witnesses or participate in the sentencing hearing in order to persuade the judge to impose a harsher sentence than suggested by the prosecutor,” Posner wrote. “The complications of intervention are many fewer at the appellate stage.”
     But because Laraneta was only one of many individuals who viewed the images, the amount of injury he personally caused Amy and Vicky is debatable, the court determined.
     The Criminal Victims’ Rights Act allows the victim to recover the “full amount of losses,” which includes medical services, therapy, lost income, legal costs and “any other losses suffered by the victim as a proximate result of the offense.”
     The 7th Circuit grappled with whether the term “proximate result” applies to all of a damages award, or just “any other losses” not specified in the statute.
     The court chose the broader application.
     “All [the phrase ‘any other losses’] does is close loopholes that might open up because of the detailed specification of losses in the preceding subsections; there is no reason that any limitation on liability imposed in the name of ‘proximate cause’ should not apply equally to the specified and the unspecified losses,” Posner wrote.
     Individual tort liability is complex when photos or videos go viral, the court noted. The degree of harm that Laraneta inflicted depends on whether he distributed the images, or merely viewed them himself.
     “Without a finding that he was a distributor, it is beyond implausible that the victims would have suffered the harm they did had he been the only person in the world to view pornographic images of them,” Posner wrote. “The case must therefore be remanded for a redetermination not of the victims’ total damages, which are conceded, but of the portion allocable to the defendant.”
     Judge Lozano will have to determine Laraneta’s personal liability when recalculating the award.
     Restitution was appropriate, the court affirmed, but Amy’s award should have also been reduced based on the amount she has already recovered.
     Laraneta must pay $100 per year from his prison wage toward fulfilling the judgment. Posner specified that he cannot sue others for contributions to the award.
     “It would make little sense to permit the defendant to sue other defendants for tiny shares of the amount of money that he is paying,” the decision states.
     “We have enough inmate suits as it is,” Posner added.
     The court also affirmed Laraneta’s sentence, noting that 30 years still fell below guidelines because his conviction involved seven counts of child pornography possession.

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