D.C. Circuit: Restitution Order Must Involve Victim’s Loss, Not Defendant’s Gain

by Ifrah PLLC
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On November 9, 2012, in a unanimous opinion in United States v. Fair, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the district court had abused its discretion in ordering restitution in the amount of $743,000 in a criminal copyright infringement case. The appeals court vacated the lower court’s restitution order, finding that the order was based on “a clear legal and factual error.”

The appeals court emphasized that a restitution order may not be based solely on the ill-gotten gain of the defendant but must be directly related to the victim’s actual loss, which is not always the same thing.

In this case, Gregory Fair had offered customers an appealing but illegal way to acquire up-to-date Adobe software at less than half the retail price. Fair’s company sold outdated Adobe software (Photoshop and PageMaker) on eBay and included numerical codes that the buyers could use to purchase an update of the same software directly from Adobe. This scheme lasted from February 2001 until September 2007, when Fair was shut down by the United States Postal Inspection Service.

In 2009 Fair pleaded guilty to charges in exchange for a reduced sentence. Although Fair admitted to receiving roughly $1.4 million in revenue from the sale of pirated software on eBay, his plea agreement was based on an infringement category of greater than $400,000 but less than $1 million. Based on the Sentencing Guidelines for that category, Fair was sentenced to 41 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. At sentencing, the prosecution also insisted that the court order the maximum restitution. The district judge ordered restitution of $743,000 to Adobe, based on prosecutors’ calculations of Fair’s ill-gotten gains.

At first blush that makes sense, right? Not so quick; there is a fatal flaw. Under federal law, restitution is not based on what the defendant gained; it’s based on what the victim actually lost. In many cases those are the same, but here it certainly was not.

At sentencing, Fair’s attorney raised this point in several different ways, emphasizing that the prosecution had completely failed to prove any actual harm to Adobe. This was a critical issue in this case, because Fair was actually directing each of his buyers to make a legitimate $200 purchase from Adobe. Fair’s attorney argued, correctly, that the burden was on the prosecution to show actual, provable loss (i.e., that purchasers of Fair’s outdated material, which Adobe no longer offered for sale, would have actually purchased the full-price, up-to-date merchandise from Adobe AND that the aggregate sales that Fair directed to Adobe were less than the sales that he supposedly thwarted).

The trial judge ignored Fair’s arguments, referred to the prosecution’s unsubstantiated calculation as “hard proof,” and fallaciously based the restitution order on his belief that it was “undisputed that Fair’s revenue from the sale of pirated products was at least $767,000.”

In so doing, the trial judge overstated the weight of the prosecution’s evidence and misinterpreted the law regarding restitution. As the appeals court explained, the purpose of the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA) is “to compensate victims for the loss caused by the defendant’s criminal conduct.” Thus the trial court’s restitution order must be “limited to the actual, provable loss suffered by the victim” at the hands of the defendant. The appeals ruling made it clear that the prosecution must “articulate specific factual findings underlying its restitution order,” and it “may not substitute the defendant’s ill-gotten gains for the victim’s actual, provable loss.”

Prosecutors and judges must not lose sight of the fact that victims are free to seek full restitution in separate civil lawsuits. In fact, civil restitution suits actually allow for the disgorgement of all of the defendant’s profits, including those in excess of the victim’s loss. The Fair case is a perfect example of federal prosecutors and criminal trial courts losing sight of their role in the justice system. Fortunately, the appeals court stepped up to rein them in. In the words of D.C. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, “the abuse-of-discretion standard may be generous, but it is not one that will countenance the clear legal and factual error present here.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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