Criminal Law - Section 2259 Restitution - Seventh Circuit Addresses Proximate Causation Requirement

Harvard Law Review, June 2013 | Go to article overview
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Criminal Law - Section 2259 Restitution - Seventh Circuit Addresses Proximate Causation Requirement


Under 18 U.S.C. [section] 2259, federal courts must order defendants convicted of crimes listed under the same chapter to pay restitution for "the full amount of ... losses" caused to victims of their offense conduct. (1) As [section] 2259 restitution orders have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, (2) federal courts have inconsistently applied the statute. In particular, the precise method by which a court should causally connect a defendant's conduct to a quantum of losses eligible for restitution has remained ill defined. Recently, in United States v. Laraneta, (3) the Seventh Circuit joined several of its sister circuits in addressing the method of quantifying losses caused to a claimant under [section] 2259. However, in remanding the case for a redetermination of precisely what offense conduct inflicted losses on the claimants, the court confusingly cited divergent approaches regarding how the district court was to quantify restitution for the losses caused in a given circumstance. It should have directed the district court, in the event that the district court found a lack of multiple faults and alternative liability, to tie the quantum of the restitution award causally to the contribution of Laraneta's offense conduct. By failing to give such guidance, the Laraneta court missed an opportunity to ameliorate, at least partially, the confusion that federal courts experience in applying [section] 2259.

As part of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, (4) Congress included a "Mandatory Restitution for Sex Crimes" section, (5) which requires federal courts to order defendants convicted of offenses under the same chapter to pay restitution for "the full amount of the victim's losses" to those individuals "harmed as a result of" the offense conduct. (6) One offense triggering [section] 2259 restitution is possession of child pornography. (7) In 2008, following successful prosecutions of child-pornography offenses, the government began notifying those depicted individuals whom it could identify of their ability to claim restitution from defendants under [section] 2259. (8) Two depicted individuals, pseudonymously designated "Amy" and "Vicky," have sought restitution on hundreds of occasions. (9)

On September 3, 2010, defendant Christopher Laraneta pleaded guilty to seven counts of violating federal child-pornography laws, including possession of child pornography. (10) He was sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment and supervised release for life. (11) Following requests presented to the court on behalf of Amy and Vicky -- both depicted in images that Laraneta had possessed -- Judge Lozano of the Northern District of Indiana also ordered restitution payments to the victims of $3,367,854 and $965,827.64, respectively. (12) These amounts accounted for the entirety of the claimants' uncompensated losses, for which Laraneta was found jointly liable. (13)

Laraneta appealed both his sentence and the restitution awards. With regard to the latter, Laraneta conceded that the court had correctly quantified the total losses that the claimants had incurred from the circulation of their images on the Internet. (14) However, he argued that the restitution awards could not be assessed against him in the absence of a statutorily required finding of proximate causation between his offense conduct and the losses suffered by the claimants. (15)

The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded in part. (16) Writing for the panel, Judge Posner (17) affirmed the district court's imposition of a deservedly "long" prison sentence, including the district court's consecutive stacking of sentences for discrete possession convictions. (18) Turning to the issue of restitution, (19) the court circumvented the statutory interpretation arguments of the parties, (20) finding that [section] 2259 included a proximate causation standard. (21) The court then addressed the "more difficult question [of] what 'proximate cause' actually mean[t]" in the instant case.

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