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United States v. Burgess, No. 09-4584

Decided: July 11, 2012

On appeal, Albert C. Burgess, Jr., challenges his convictions and sentences for two felonies involving the receipt and possession of child pornography, as well as an award of restitution for losses suffered by a child victim portrayed in the material in Burgess’ possession.  The Court of Appeals affirmed Burgess’ convictions and all aspects of his sentences except the amount of restitution ordered by the district court.  As to the restitution, the majority followed the D.C. Circuit in holding that the child pornography statute incorporates the tort requirement of proximate causation to support an award of compensatory damages to a victim and a defendant is liable only for harm he proximately caused.

Federal authorities linked Burgess to a website that offered child pornography to customers using payment information he supplied online.  During a search of his home, authorities found a personal computer and compact discs containing hundreds of video recordings and thousands of images of child pornography.  Burgess was arrested and charged under North Carolina state law.  While in custody, he was informed of his Miranda rights and confessed to an officer that he viewed child pornography frequently and knew of trafficking operations.  While in state custody, a federal grand jury indicted Burgess of knowingly possessing child pornography and knowingly receiving child pornography via computer.  A jury convicted him of both counts, and the district court imposed an award of $305,219.86 in restitution on behalf of “Vicky,” a child victim portrayed in the materials seized from Burgess.

The Court of Appeals found Burgess’ arguments against his two convictions and sentencing to be without merit.  Among other things, Burgess argued that the length of his pretrial detention violated his right to a speedy trial, an argument the Court of Appeals disposed of because he was not taken into federal custody until after he was indicted by a grand jury.  Burgess’ strongest contention was that the district court erred in ordering that he pay restitution because the court did not determine that his conduct proximately caused harm to the victim.  The Court of Appeals noted that although several circuits had considered the issue, none had adopted the general causation argument and allowed liability to be imposed on one defendant for all of a victim’s injuries, regardless of how attenuated the connection to that defendant.  While some circuits chose to read one subsection of the statute requiring proximate cause to apply to the remainder of the statute, the Fourth Circuit declined that line of reasoning, instead following the plurality that have applied general tort principles to require proximate causation for an award of compensatory damages.  The Court of Appeals held that Burgess was only responsible for losses sustained by Vicky that he proximately caused.  On remand to the district court for a determination of proximate causation, the Court of Appeals further held that joint and several liability was not applicable to Burgess and instead the district court should employ the concept of aggregate harm to ascertain the appropriate amount of restitution.

Judge Gregory wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, but disagreeing with the majority’s determination that joint and several liability was inapplicable to Burgess, as his interpretation of the statute requires the court to order Burgess to pay all of the losses he proximately caused and for any injuries indivisible from those that he proximately caused.

Full Opinion

-Nora Anne Bennani