Whitfield v. U.S.: The Supreme Court Engages In Statutory Interpretation, Clarifying the Meaning of the Word “Accompany” in 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e)
United States Supreme Court
Whitfield v. U.S.
574 U.S. ___ (2015)
Decided on January 13, 2015
Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer
Issue: Whether the word “accompany” in the forced accompaniment provision of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e) requires a showing of more than a minimal movement by the victim.
Summary: The defendant attempted to rob a bank. However, the robbery attempt was thwarted by police, and the defendant fled and hid in an elderly woman’s home. He forced the woman to accompany him to another room in her house, and the ordeal caused her to suffer a fatal heart attack. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the meaning of the word “accompany” in the forced accompaniment statute 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e) should be the plain meaning of the word. The meaning should not turn on the distance of the movement; rather, to “accompany” means forcing a victim to move somewhere, no matter the distance.
Holding: Under § 2113(e), a forced accompaniment by a bank robber occurs when he forces a victim to move somewhere with him, even if the movement occurs within the same building or is over a short distance.
Facts: Larry Whitfield and an accomplice attempted to rob a bank, but after the robbery attempt failed, both men fled from the police. Whitfield decided to hide in the home of 79-year-old Mary Parnell. Confronted by Mrs. Parnell at the front door when he entered her home, Whitfield guided her down the hallway to another room a few feet away, where she suffered a fatal heart attack. Whitfield quickly fled the home, and was found by police hiding nearby.
A grand jury indicted Whitfield on several charges relating to the robbery. Additionally, he was indicted for forcing Parnell to accompany him and for killing her in the process of avoiding apprehension for a committed crime. The district court denied Whitfield’s motion to dismiss this additional charge, and instructed the jury that to find Whitfield guilty of this charge, it needed to find that his actions were the “proximate cause of Parnell’s death.”
A jury convicted Whitfield of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e) for forcing Parnell to accompany him to another room while in the course of avoiding capture by the police. He was not convicted of killing Parnell. In his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Whitfield argued that to “accompany” in § 2113(e) requires a showing of a “substantial” movement beyond only a few feet or a short distance. He also made objections to the instructions given to the jury by the lower court. The Fourth Circuit vacated Whitfield’s conviction and remanded the case to the district court for a rehearing based on the jury instructions. Whitfield was again found guilty, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction.
Legal Analysis: In an opinion written by Justice Scalia for a unanimous court, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a bank robber forces someone to accompany him when he forces the victim to go somewhere with him, even if it is over a small distance or to the next room in a house.
The pertinent statute, the forced accompaniment provision of § 2113(e), reads:
“Whoever, in committing any offense defined in this section, or in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for 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.”
Understanding the history behind this statute is important in interpreting its meaning. The statute dates back to early 1930’s bank robberies, like those committed by the infamous bank robber, John Dillinger. Congress enacted the statute in 1934 in response to the outbreak of these bank robberies, where innocent people were forced to accompany bank robbers in their attempt to flee police capture. While many parts of the statute have been modified since the 1930’s, the language of the forced accompaniment provision (“forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person”) has remained unchanged.
At issue in this case was the meaning of the word “accompany” in the provision. Whitfield argued that because he had moved his victim a short distance (only a few feet) within the same building, the statute did not apply. However, Scalia disagreed with Whitfield’s distance argument. First, Scalia rejected Whitfield’s meaning of “accompany” as requiring substantial distance by turning to the Oxford English Dictionary. To “accompany” means “to go with” someone and does not “connote movement over a substantial distance” (quoting Justice Scalia). Second, Scalia noted that accompaniment does not require proof of more than a minimal movement. Therefore, when Whitfield brought Parnell with him a few feet from one room to another, this movement fell under the meaning of the statute.
In his appeal, Whitfield pointed to the severe penalty under the statute to support his argument that “accompany” must connote movement of a substantial distance. The statute, § 2113(e), requires (at minimum) at least ten years in prison for bank robbers who force another person to accompany them. Scalia rejected Whitfield’s argument, arguing that the danger of a forced accompaniment does not depend on the distance traveled, nor should it be based on the penalties of the statute.