Federal bank robbery has always been a serious offense. The Supreme Court just made it significantly more serious. In a January 13, 2015 decision, Whitfield v. United States, the Court sharply defined an enhancement penalty provision under the bank robbery statute. Section 2113 of Title 18, United States Code, imposes an enhanced penalty when a bank robber “forces any person to accompany him” in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery.”
One morning in September 2008, Larry Whitfield (and a partner in crime) botched a bank robbery in Gastonia, North Carolina. The duo fled from the pursuing police. They ultimately ditched their .357 handgun and AK47 assault rifle before separating. A short time later Whitfield entered the home of 79-year-old woman. The woman was naturally terrified. He guided the woman from the hallway to a nearby computer room—a distance of between four and nine feet. Whitfield tried to calm the woman’s hysteria, telling her that he was more afraid than her. The assurances did not work. The woman suffered a fatal heart attack.
A grand jury indicted Whitfield under Subsection (e) of Section 2113 which defines “accompany” as moving someone “without the consent of the person.” This provision provides an enhanced mandatory ten year minimum term, or if death occurs, a penalty of life imprisonment. Whitfield was convicted by a jury and received a mandatory life sentence.
On appeal, Whitfield argued that Section 2113 requires “substantial” movement of the person forced to accompany a bank robber. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, finding that “although Whitfield required Mrs.
Parnell to accompany for only a short distance within her own home, and for a brief period, no more is required to prove that a forced accompaniment occurred.”
That was the issue squarely before the Supreme Court: exactly what constitutes “accompaniment.” While Section 2113 has been amended by Congress many times since its enactment in 1934 during the heyday of John Dillinger and others, the phrase—“forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person”—has remained unaltered.
The Supreme Court at the outset of its opinion pointed out that the term to “accompany” is the same today as it was in 1934, “to go in company with, to go along with.” The historical dictionary definition of the term does not require movement over a substantial distance. Movement itself satisfies to “accompany.”
The Court pointed out that while the “accompany” term would not include minimal movement, such as the movement of a bank teller’s arm when grabbed by the robber, “it must constitute movement that would normally be described as from one place to another, even if only from only one spot within a room or outdoors to a different one.”
Whitfield tried to persuade the Court that because of the severe mandatory minimum of 10 years and maximum of life imprisonment, the interpretation of the term to “accompany” should not include movement of a short distance. The Court was not impressed, upholding Whitfield’s conviction and life sentence with this conclusion:
“[Severity of sentence] does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed. Consider, for example, a hostage-taker’s movement of one of the victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door. And even if we thought otherwise, we would have no authority to add a limitation the statute plainly does not contain. The Congress that wrote that 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 language to give ‘accompany a meaning that covers only large distances.”