Three Not A Crowd: Seventh Circuit Lets Victims Intervene To Protect Restitution Award

Posted On Friday, November 30, 2012

Crime victims awarded restitution in a criminal case may intervene in a subsequent appeal to defend their award, the Seventh Circuit has ruled.

But victims cannot intervene in the district court, said the court, in a decision authored by Judge Richard Posner.  That could be a “recipe for chaos,” Judge Posner opined in United States v. Laraneta, —F.3d—, 2012 WL 5897610 (7th Cir. Nov. 14, 2012), citing the potential for victims to participate in plea negotiations and trials.

By contrast, Judge Posner wrote, intervention at the appellate stage imposes relatively few burdens and allows those with an economic interest in the outcome to defend their awards.

“The government,” Judge Posner noted, “has no financial stake in restitution to victims of crime.”

In Laraneta, the defendant pleaded guilty to seven counts of violating federal child-pornography laws and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  He was also ordered to pay more than $4 million as restitution to two women of whom he possessed pornographic images taken when they were girls. 

On appeal, the defendant challenged both the prison term and the restitution award.  The government defended only the prison term.  But the Seventh Circuit permitted the women to intervene, and the court allowed the intervention over the government’s objection.

The court acknowledged that the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, unlike their civil analogs, contain no provision allowing for intervention.  So instead the court relied on its inherent power to let parties intervene on appeal, citing its own precedent, as well as case law from the Third and Fifth Circuits.  The court cast its decision as one of expedience, noting that crime victims already have a statutory right to seek mandamus when restitution is denied. 

Posner brushed aside a recent case from the Eleventh Circuit, United States v. Alcatel-Lucent France, SA, 688 F.3d 1301, 1306 (11thCir. 2012), which held that a crime victim cannot appeal from a denial of restitution.  (Three other circuits—the District of Columbia, First and Tenth—all have ruled similarly since 2008).  The issue in Laraneta—intervention at the appellate level—was not before the Eleventh Circuit, Posner wrote. 

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit found errors in the restitution award and remanded for further proceedings.  But Laraneta still adds one more complication for defendants who believe the restitution awards imposed against them are excessive or unlawful.