Whitfiled v. United States (SCOTUS)

Before we take a short break for the finals season, CLR’s exceptional staff editor, Courtney Mohan has prepared this blog entry discussing a recently decided U.S. Supreme Court case.

Facts

Shortly after botching a bank robbery, Larry Whitfield fled police. While on the run, he was able to find an unlocked home nearby and enter the home. That home belonged to 79-year-old Mary Parnell. Mr. Whitfield encountered Ms. Parnell while in the home and forced her to follow him from the hallway to another room within the house. Once inside the room, Ms. Parnell suffered a heart attack and passed away. Whitfield then fled the house and was later apprehended by police. Whitfield v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 785, 787 (2015).

After a grand jury hearing, Mr. Whitfield was indicted for many charges including violating 18 U.S.C. §2113(e) which states “[w]hoever, in committing any offense defined in this section, or in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission of such offense… 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.” Id. at 787. A jury later found Mr. Whitfield guilty of the offense. Id. at 788.

Mr. Whitfield appealed his conviction, stating that he did not violate §2113(e) because his movement with Ms. Parnell was not “substantial.” The Court of Appeals disagreed with Mr. Whitfield’s argument and stated that the short distance from the hall to the room during the very brief period of time was enough to satisfy a conviction. Id.

Mr. Whitfield then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Id.

Analysis

In 1934, Congress enacted §2113(e) as a response to the “bank robberies committed by John Dillinger and others.” Carter v. United States, 530 U.S. 255, 280 (2000) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). The phrase “forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person” from the statute has remained unchanged since 1934. Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 783 (2000).

The Court looked to the meaning of the word “accompany” in 1934 when interpreting the statute. Whitfield, 135 S. Ct. at 788. The Court determined that the word simply means “to go along with” someone and does not require the “substantial” movement that Mr. Whitfield argued for. Id. The Court stated that there must be some sort of movement “from one place to another” to satisfy the statute. Id. Thus, the movement from the hall to the nearby room was sufficient. Id.

Mr. Whitfield also attempted to argue that because the statute carried harsh penalties, the movement must be “substantial.” Id. at 789. The Court rejected this argument and stated that the distance of the movement does not make the accompaniment more or less dangerous. The Court offered examples to prove this point including having a victim go to a window and be subjected to police fire. Id. Because Congress did not allow for a distance limitation in the statute, the Court refused to adopt one. Id.

Mr. Whitfield then attempted to convince the Court to adopt a narrow reading of the statute to require a forced accompaniment over a substantial distance because anyone involved in the bank robbery who moved could cause Mr. Whitfield to be convicted under §2113(e). Id. at 789. The Court disagreed and stated that the word “accompany” requires that the victim go somewhere with the robber and does not include victims who move without force. Id.

Conclusion

The Court concluded that Mr. Whitfield violated §2113(e) because he forced Ms. Parnell to accompany him from the hall to a room. Therefore, his conviction was affirmed.

Do we think section 2113 was intended to punish defendants in Mr. Whitfield’s position with life imprisonment or death?  Is it appropriate to treat this “forced accompaniment” that results in death similarly to felony-murder that exists in many jurisdictions?

Please let us know your thoughts, we love hearing from our audience.

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