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SCOTUS: Federal bank robbery provision doesn’t require moving victim a “substantial” distance

Whitfield v. United States, USSC No. 13-9026, 2015 WL 144680 (January 13, 2015), affirming United States v. Whitfield, 695 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2012); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

The Supreme Court unanimously holds that a bank robber forces a person to “accompany” him for purposes of the enhanced penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e) when he forces that person to go somewhere with him, even if the movement occurs entirely within a single building or over a short distance.

Whitfield was fleeing from a botched bank robbery when he entered Mary Parnell’s home. He encountered Parnell and guided her from the hallway into another room, a distance of between four to nine feet. He was charged under § 2113(e), which provides a minimum sentence of ten years in prison and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for a bank robber who forces another person “to accompany him” during the robbery or while in flight. (Slip op. at 1-2).

Citing the meaning of the term “accompany” from sources contemporaneous to the statute’s enactment in 1934 and concluding it is “perfectly natural to speak of accompanying someone over a relative short distance” (slip op. at 2-3), the Court rejects Whitfield’s claim that § 2113(e) requires proof of “substantial” movement of the victim:

It is true enough that accompaniment does not embrace minimal movement—for example, the movement of a bank teller’s feet when the robber grabs her arm. It must constitute movement that would normally be described as from one place to another, even if only from one spot within a room or outdoors to a different one. Here, Whitfield forced Parnell to accompany him for at least several feet, from one room to another. That surely sufficed. (Slip op. at 3).

Nor does the severity of the punishment resulting from this finding militate for Whitfield’s more restrictive reading, as “it does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed[,]” and even if it did the Court can’t read into the statute a limitation it plainly doesn’t contain: “The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that. It is simply not in accord with English usage to give ‘accompany’ a meaning that covers only large distances.” (Slip op. at 4).

As noted in our post on the cert grant, two federal circuits had held that § 2113(e) required more than “insubstantial asportation”; this opinion invalidates that line of cases. The Seventh Circuit hasn’t addressed the question head-on, so the decision doesn’t overturn our circuit’s precedent. The decision has no effect on state law, as the only criminal statute with a similar requirement of forced accompaniment is the kidnapping statute, § 940.31(1)(a) and (c), and the courts have already held that statute does not require movement of any particular minimum distance, State v. Wagner, 191 Wis. 2d 322, 328-29, 528 N.W.2d 85 (Ct. App. 1995).

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