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Short-distance Kidnapping by Bank Robbers

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Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided Whitfield v. United States, No. 13-9026.  The question presented is how far a bank robber must move an unconsenting victim to qualify for an enhanced sentence.  The statute does not use the term kidnapping a hostage, but that's the idea.  The unanimous answer is not far at all.  The syllabus follows the break.

Lying beneath the case is the federalism question of whether bank robbery really needs to be a federal offense rather than a state offense.  A decent case could be made during the Great Depression that John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, et al. were a threat to interstate commerce, but that case is hard to make today.  Those issues were not before the Court, though, and the case seems straightforward on the question actually presented.

The statute speaks of forcing a person to "accompany" the robber.  To support the proposition that "accompany" can mean a short distance, and could in the 30s when the statute was written, Justice Scalia cites a 1930 wedding announcement in the New York Times saying "accompany to the altar."  Nice touch.  Oh, and throw in Charles Dickens and Jane Austen for good measure.

This case only directly affects federal bank robbery prosecutions, but it may be useful for a "cf." cite in state kidnapping cases where the defense complains that the victim was not moved very far.

On its facts, if this case had been a state prosecution, it would make a good example of a valid application of the much-maligned felony-murder rule.  There are cases where a murder conviction for a felon without intent to kill is excessively harsh, but this would not be one of them.
Petitioner Whitfield, fleeing a botched bank robbery, entered 79-year old Mary Parnell's home and guided a terrified Parnell from a hallway to a room a few feet away, where she suffered a fatal heart attack. He was convicted of, among other things, violating 18 U. S. C.§ 2113(e), which establishes enhanced penalties for anyone who "forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person" in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that the movement Whitfield required Parnell to make satisfied the forced-accompaniment requirement, rejecting his argument that § 2113(e) requires "substantial" movement.

Held: A bank robber "forces [a] person to accompany him," for purposes of § 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, as was the case here. At the time the forced-accompaniment provision was enacted, just as today, to "accompany"someone meant to "go with" him. The word does not, as Whitfield contends, connote movement over a substantial distance. Accompaniment requires movement that would normally be described as from one place to another. Here, Whitfield forced Parnell to accompany him for at least several feet, from one room to another, and that surely sufficed. The severity of the penalties for a forced-accompaniment conviction--a mandatory minimum of 10 years, and a maximum of life imprisonment--does not militate against this interpretation, for the danger of a forced accompaniment does not vary depending on the distance traversed. This reading also does not make any other part of § 2113's graduated penalty scheme superfluous. Pp. 2-5.

548 Fed. Appx. 70, affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

More opinions are expected tomorrow.  Among CJLF's cases, Jennings v. Stephens is the ripest.  CJLF's brief is here, and a post on the argument is here.

1 Comment

Another, and I would think obvious, aspect of the opinion is its adherence to the language of the statute as Congress wrote it, not as the defendant says they "should" have or "really" wanted to.

This is good news for those who think words have meanings, not intentions.

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