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The Fourth Circuit Agrees That Restitution Is Hard For Child Pornography Victims, Even If The Person Accused Of the Child Pornography Offense Is Chatty

Albert Burgess made some bad decisions.

First, he downloaded a mass of child pornography. The folks at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (or “ICE”) were able to find him through the payment information he supplied to the child porn purveyor.

ICE asked for and received a warrant to search his house. While his house was being searched he agreed to be questioned.

1378633_man_with_a_megaphone_1.jpgHe told law enforcement that he was the only person who used his home computer. That was probably also a mistake.

They found child pornography on his computer – and on CDs in his house.

He was arrested. While he was waiting to be checked into jail, a female law enforcement agent asked if she could keep talking to him. He said yes.

This was also a mistake. I don’t know why it seems there are a lot of female agents working child porn cases, but folks accused of these crimes seem to be really willing to talk to them. There’s something going on there – law enforcement is being smart in a way not dissimilar to Hooters.

Here’s how the Fourth Circuit describes Mr. Burgess’s statements:

Burgess, looking down at a copy of the arrest warrant, stated, “You’ve got me.” He admitted to viewing child pornography between two and three times per week, and also informed Redden that he knew of significant child pornography trafficking operations in Russia and the Philippine Islands (the Philippines).

Ok, so far this is relatively typical for a child pornography case. Then things go a little off the rails. Mr. Burgess is released before trial.

The Perils Of Do-It-Yourself 5K1.1

While he’s on pretrial release,

On March 7, 2008, Burgess placed a telephone call to [law enforcement] stating, “Well, I’ve got to help myself. I’ve got to talk to somebody.” Burgess met with the federal agents at his home three days later, signed a statement waiving his Miranda rights, and provided details regarding his pornography sources in Russia and the Philippines. It was Burgess’ understanding that the federal authorities would use the information and email addresses he had provided to assist in the investigation of these internet pornography sources. Burgess was under the impression that he was bargaining with the federal agents, and later testified to this effect, stating: “You know, you’ve got to give [the government] something before they can give you something. You can’t sit there, you know, and extract something from them.” Burgess also confessed to the federal agents that he viewed child pornography for five hours per day while masturbating, and that he did so to prevent himself from actually committing offenses on a child.

I agree that Mr. Burgess needed to talk to someone. I just think that he probably needed to talk to a lawyer, and not a federal law enforcement agent.

In exchange for his efforts to “help” Mr. Burgess was sentenced to 292 months in prison and a lifetime of supervised release.

The Fourth Circuit Rejects Easy Restitution For Child Porn Victims

The district court in North Carolina also sentenced him to pay restitution to a known victim of child pornography – Vicky.

In United States v. Burgess, the Fourth Circuit joined a number of other circuits to reject this request for restitution for victims of child pornography.

It did so in a way similar to how other courts have approached it – the district court has to make findings of how the defendant in this case caused the harm complained about by the child pornography victim. It’s not per se impossible, it’s just going to be massively difficult to accomplish.

So, on remand,

The primary difficulty that will face the district court on remand will be the determination, if the court finds that proximate causation has been established, of the quantum of loss attributable to Burgess for his participation in Vicky’s exploitation. Vicky is entitled to the “full amount” of restitution for such loss, and we leave the calculation of such an amount to the district court in the first instance. While the district court is not required to justify any award with absolute precision, the amount of the award must have a sufficient factual predicate. Vicky’s loss is an aggregation of the acts of the person who committed and filmed her assault, those who distributed and redistributed her images, and those who possessed those images. The culpability of any one defendant regarding Vicky’s loss is dependent at least in part on the role that defendant played with respect to her exploitation.

Fair enough – in this line of cases that’s kind of the baseline in light of what the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Ninth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuit’s have already held. But wait, there’s more . . .

Every Downloading Of Child Pornography Is Separate For Federal Criminal Restitution

But then the Fourth Circuit goes further notes that joint and several liability does not apply for child pornography restitution awards – at least in cases involving possession and receipt.

We also observe that the tort concept of joint and several liability is not applicable in this context. In situations such as Vicky’s, individuals viewing her video recordings inflict injuries at different times and in different locations. Therefore, those individuals cannot have proximately caused a victim the same injury. As the court observed in Monzel, “so long as the requirement of proximate cause applies, as it does here, a defendant can be jointly and severally liable only for injuries that meet that requirement.” Monzel, 641 F.3d at 539 (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts ยง 879 cmt. b (1979) for the proposition that individual instances of exploitation are separate injurious results).

This is going to create an odd kind of restitution award if a district court is ever able to find that a child pornography possessor has proximately caused harm to someone in Vicky’s situation.

How would you approach that at a hearing? The images depicting Vicky were downloaded, let’s say, 100,000 times. Is the quantum of harm from each download the same? Do you just divide? Does it matter if one person says he looked at the images every day and others looked weekly? Do you want to count views or downloads?

How desperately are district court judges going to find a way to avoid thinking too much about any of this?

You Can’t Assume Yourself Into Immunity

And, to answer the lingering question from Mr. Burgess’s statements were entitled to any kind of immunity because he was trying to cooperate with law enforcement to get his sentence reduced, the Fourth Circuit said no.

Mr. Burgess argued that because he was trying to provide substantial assistance to help catch child pornographers in the Philippines and Russia, his statements couldn’t be used against him.

Sometimes, a lawyer can negotiate that deal for a client – which is why Mr. Burgess probably should have used a lawyer to negotiate his immunity deal.

As the Fourth Circuit explained,

A defendant’s alleged agreement to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in exchange for transactional immunity is governed by traditional principles of contract law, and therefore an agreement of this nature may be express or implied. United States v. McHan, 101 F.3d 1027, 1034 (4th Cir. 1996). Irrespective whether the alleged agreement is express or implied, the defendant must establish that a meeting of the minds occurred such that the government agreed to refrain from prosecuting the defendant in return for his cooperation. Id. (holding that the same standard applies with respect to equitable immunity).

In this case, Burgess can identify no action or statement on the part of the government sufficient to establish a meeting of the minds regarding immunity for his statements. Burgess was informed of his Miranda rights before every exchange with the authorities, and at no time did a law enforcement agent make any statement or representation concerning immunity. Additionally, the agents’ conduct cannot be viewed objectively as impliedly offering immunity to Burgess or as accepting such an offer from him. Additionally, the agents’ conduct cannot be viewed objectively as impliedly offering immunity to Burgess or as accepting such an offer from him. Indeed, Burgess’ own testimony at trial demonstrated his mistaken belief that, despite repeated Miranda warnings, he expected to receive a benefit from providing information to the authorities. Such a mistaken belief, however, cannot serve as the foundation for an immunity claim.

It’s a dark side to the rise of DIY culture. There’s nothing wrong with DIY painting or bicycle repair. Perhaps it’s less helpful to have do it yourself negotiations with federal criminal authorities.

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