Whitfield v. United States

Issues 

Does a federal bank robbery statute’s forced-accompaniment offense require substantial movement of a victim?

Oral argument: 
December 2, 2014

The issue in this case is whether “accompany” should require de minimus or substantial movement of a victim for bank robberies tried in federal court. Whitfield argues that the federal bank robbery statute (18 U.S.C. § 2113(e)) should be interpreted as requiring substantial movement of the victim and that any broader interpretation of “accompany” would yield absurd results. The United States counters that “accompany” should be interpreted literally, and that any finding of accompaniment justifies the imposition of an additional conviction under § 2113(e). This case will impact the interpretation of “accompany” in the context of bank robberies, and may also impact the interpretation of statutes involving other crimes, such as kidnapping.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

A conviction under the federal bank robbery statute carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but no minimum sentence. 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). If the bank robber forces another person “to accompany him” during the robbery or while in flight, however, that additional offense carries a minimum sentence of ten years in prison and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e).

The question presented is whether § 2113(e)’s forced-accompaniment offense requires proof of more than a de minimis movement of the victim.

Facts 

On September 26, 2008, Larry Whitfield and Quanterrious McCoy attempted an armed robbery of the Fort Financial Credit Union in Gastonia, North Carolina. Whitfield and McCoy’s weapons triggered an alarm system that prevented them from entering the bank, so they fled in their car. As the police pursued Whitfield and McCoy, Whitfield and McCoy lost control of the car. They continued on foot and went to nearby Belmont, North Carolina, where they separated. Shortly afterward, McCoy was discovered by the police hiding under a van.

During the course of his escape attempt, Whitfield entered the home of Mary Parnell, asked her to take him to a room where the police would not be able to see him, and followed her as she led him into an interior room. Once in the room, Parnell appeared to have trouble breathing and eventually lost consciousness. A short time later, Whitfield left the house after hearing knocking and the doorbell. Subsequently, Whitfield was discovered hiding and was arrested. Mary Parnell was later pronounced dead of a heart attack.

At the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina (“district court”), a grand jury charged Whitfield with violating 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), which states that:

[w]hoever . . . in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission of [any] offense [defined in this section] . . . kills any person, or forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person, shall be imprisoned not less than ten years, or if death results shall be punished by death or life imprisonment.

On November 20, 2009, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Whitfield on the charge of forced accompaniment, and an answer of “yes” to the question of whether or not that forced accompaniment brought about Parnell’s death.

Whitfield appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Fourth Circuit”), which vacated Whitfield’s conviction for forced accompaniment resulting in death, remanded concerning the forced accompaniment offense, and “affirm[ed] the judgment in all other respects.” On remand, the district court convicted Whitfield of forced accompaniment during a bank robbery under § 2113(e). Whitfield once again appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision on December 10, 2013.

Whitfield filed a petition to the Supreme Court of the United States for certiorari on March 7, 2014, and the Court granted the petition on June 23, 2014.

Analysis 

In this case, the Court will resolve whether a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), a forced-accompaniment during a bank robbery offense, requires evidence that the victim traversed more than a de minimis distance of a few feet. Whitfield argues that § 2113(e) requires a showing that the victim moved a substantial distance. The United States contends that § 2113(e) applies to any forced accompaniment, which does not depend on the amount of movement by the victim.

DOES THE STATUTE’S TEXT, STRUCTURE, HISTORY, AND PURPOSE SUPPORT AN INTERPRETATION THAT § 2113(e) REQUIRES MORE THAN A DE MINIMIS MOVEMENT?

TEXT

Whitfield argues that the word “accompany” is typically used in contexts where a person travels a significant distance. Referencing several dictionaries and the 1934 version of the U.S. Code, Whitfield maintains that a person does not simply “accompany” another person for only a few feet because the usage of “accompany” in contexts where only minimal movement is required would be awkward.

The United States counters that, when applying the dictionary definition of “accompany” to the statute, Whitfield’s actions clearly qualify under the definition. Citing several Supreme Court opinions and referencing various English authors, the United States further contends that the usage of “accompany” can denote a movement between rooms in a private residence, in addition to movement over significant distances.

STRUCTURE

Whitfield argues that, because each subsection in § 2113 imposes increasingly severe penalties, Congress intended to make forced accompaniment a more serious offense than those in the preceding subsections within § 2113. Whitfield contends that a de minimis standard, which the United States supports, would conflict with congressional intent because such an interpretation would include conduct incidental to most bank robberies and eliminate the distinction between § 2113(e) and §§ 2113(a) and 2113(d) (bank robbery in general and endangering life with a weapon respectively). Additionally, Whitfield maintains that, because forced accompaniment used to be a capital crime under § 2113(e), it would be illogical to consider moving a victim a few feet as comparable with homicide, another capital crime.

On the other hand, the United States argues that forced accompaniment over short distances subjects victims to a greater risk of death, injury, and trauma, which distinguishes the penalized conduct in § 2113(e) from the conduct in § 2113(a) and § 2113(d). The United States contends that a de minimis standard will not eliminate the distinction between § 2113(e) conduct and conduct in preceding subsections because available statistics demonstrate that a majority of bank robberies do not involve forced accompaniments; therefore, § 2113(e) will often not be applicable. The United States argues that because the amended § 2113(e) does not provide for a death penalty, the previous practice of treating forced accompaniment as a capital crime has no basis in the current interpretation of § 2113(e).

HISTORY

Whitfield argues that the statutory history supports an interpretation that forced accompaniment requires more than a de minimis movement because the statute was enacted to penalize extreme conduct and conduct equivalent to kidnapping. Whitfield asserts that the federal kidnapping statute enacted before § 2113(e) required a substantial movement of the victim (the crossing of state lines). Thus, Whitfield contends that an interpretation of the original statute excludes a reading that a de minimis movement could be considered a forced accompaniment.

The United States counters that § 2113(e) is not ambiguous on its face so the Court does not have a reason to look at the statute’s legislative history. The United States further asserts that the legislative history is lacking and does not support Whitfield’s argument that § 2113(e) should be understood in conjunction with the old federal kidnapping statute. The United States argues that, in 1934 when § 2113(e) was first enacted, most state courts interpreted kidnapping statutes to also include de minimis movement.

PURPOSE

Whitfield contends that requiring substantial movement for a forced accompaniment charge would prevent absurd results, an outcome that the Court has sought to avoid in its prior decisions. Whitfield notes that in Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., the Court noted thatinterpretations of a statute which would produce absurd results are to be avoided if alternative interpretations consistent with the legislative purpose are available.” Additionally, Whitfield points out that the government’s interpretation of the statute would defeat the purpose of § 2113’s graduated penalty structure, which assigns more severe punishments for greater culpability. Specifically, Whitfield argues that it would be illogical for a court to determine that an unarmed bank robber who demands a teller to take him or her to a bank vault as more culpable than a bank robber who physically injures the teller to prevent the teller’s escape. Whitfield also claims that the government’s interpretation would place too much weight on whether a victim moves approximately in unison with the bank robber, a factual dispute that should not determine a defendant’s culpability.

The United States argues that their literal reading of § 2113(e) does not create absurd results or defeat the purpose of § 2113’s graduated penalty structure. In response to Whitfield’s first hypothetical, the United States argues that a robber who physically injures a victim would violate multiple statutes and be subject to additional punishment, which would not defeat the purpose of § 2113’s graduated penalty structure. The United States infers that Congress reasonably concluded that a bank robber who makes a victim accompany him or her should be subject to a more severe punishment regardless of the distance covered because of the physical force and risk involved in such an accompaniment.

RULE OF LENITY

Whitfield argues that, at the very least, the rule of lenity should be applied in this case. Under the rule of lenity, Whitfield contends, the Court should adopt a narrower interpretation of an ambiguous statute, which in this case would render a de minimis movement is insufficient to establish forced accompaniment.

The United States argues that the rule of lenity does not apply in this case because the statute is not ambiguous. The United States maintains that § 2113(e) will apply whenever there is a forced movement, even when the victim has only traveled a short distance.

Discussion 

This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to define the meaning of “accompany” and to determine the range of actions that qualify as accompaniment. Whitfield argues that the definition of “accompany” should require substantial movement of the victim to protect defendants from disparate treatment or heightened sentences for substantially similar crimes. The United States argues that “accompany” should be interpreted literally to include de minimus accompaniment in order to protect victims from the heightened risk associated with forced accompaniment during the commission of a crime.

DISPARATE TREATMENT OF DEFENDANTS AND PROTECTING VICTIMS

Whitfield and supporting amici contend that forced accompaniment should require a finding of substantial movement of the victim because any lower standard would lead to inconsistent, absurd, and unjust results. Whitfield and supporting amici contend that “accompany” should be interpreted to require substantial movement in order to reduce the risk of disparate treatment of individuals charged under § 2113(e). The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (“CACL”), for example, argues that without requiring a finding of substantial movement, defendants would be at risk of receiving significantly disparate penalties for substantially similar conduct. CACL further argues that the wisdom of state courts support an interpretation of “accompany” that does not extend to insubstantial or incidental movement. For example, the CACL suggests that many states with provisions similar to § 2113(e) for forced accompaniment, confinement, or kidnapping in the course of another crime, have interpreted those provisions to exclude actions that are incident to the base crime unless those actions increase the risk of harm to the victim. Consequently, CACL urges the Court to also adopt the interpretation of those state courts.

The United States, however, argues that the offense of forced accompaniment, even when de minimus, heightens the risk to the victim in many circumstances and therefore could justify a heightened penalty. The United States posits that because forced accompaniment involves a person being in greater actual or perceived danger from the robber throughout the period of accompaniment, Congress could reasonably have intended for Courts to impose higher sentences for even minimal accompaniment. The United States contends that “accompany” should be interpreted broadly so that there will be a certain degree of flexibility when determining sentences, and so the nature of the specific accompaniment may be taken into consideration by the courts.

Conclusion 

In this case, the Court will resolve whether a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), an offense for forced-accompaniment during a bank robbery, requires evidence that the victim traversed more than a de minimis distance. Whitfield argues that § 2113(e) requires a showing that the victim moved a substantial distance. However, the United States contends that § 2113(e) applies to any forced accompaniment of any distance. This case implicates the criminal liability of future bank robbers, resolves potential ambiguity surrounding the statute, and may impact kidnapping statutes as well.

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