April 23, 2014 United States Supreme Court opinions

Paroline v United States

Paroline pled guilty to child pornography offenses. The government sought full damages suffered by the minor depicted in the images he downloaded under 18 USC 2259. The district Court denied the request. The 5th Circuit ordered full restitution. Resolving a split among the circuits on the proper causal basis for restitution in child pornography cases, the Court, 5-4 (with two dissenting opinions) reversed. The majority held that 2259 required both but for causation and proximate causation because the text refers to proximate cause and proximate cause is generally a requirement in both criminal and tort proceedings. It also held that strict but for causation in cases where thousands of people view images would undermine the goals of Congress in enacting 2259 while allowing full restitution would be unfair and possibly unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment. The majority thus adopted the government’s alternate suggestion that in these cases reasonable restitution be assessed based on a view of totality of the circumstances including number of images viewed, whether the defendant participated in creating the images and the number of known an anticipated future offenders. The case was remanded for further proceedings under the new rule. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Scalia and Thomas, dissented arguing that 2259 by adopting the general restitution standard basically makes restitution in cases like this unavailable as the amount to award will always be unknowable as it is impossible to calculate the portion of the victim’s injury Paroline’s possession of 2 images is. This dissent also argued that the approach taken by the majority was not adopted by Congress and will end up with small awards which will keep the victim in this case litigating the issue for years. Justice Sotomayor dissented arguing the 5th Circuit correctly decided the case because 2259 mandates restitution in the full amount of harm suffered, aggregate liability is an appropriate model for causation here and the majority’s concerns about the desperate impact between wealthy and poor offenders is offset by the ability of sentencing courts to order periodic payments.

White v Woodall

Woodall pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to death. At his penalty phase, the trial court refused to give an instruction prohibiting inferences form Woodall’s failure to testify. His sentence was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court, but, federal habeas relief was granted based on the failure to charge. The Court, 6-3, reversed. The majority held that under 28 USC 2254(b), only unreasonable applications of actual Supreme Court holdings can provide a basis for relief. Here, there is no precedent which expressly held that inference instructions must be given at sentencing hearings. Additionally, whether lack of remorse can be inferred from a failure to testify may be an inference allowed under Court precedent and thus the Kentucky Supreme Court did not act unreasonably in rejecting Woodall’s claim. The dissent argued that Court precedent when put together in the only reasonable way clearly required the instruction here and habeas relief was proper.

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