Issues: ,

Intro

Larry WHITFIELD, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
No. 13-9026.
135 S.Ct. 785 (2015); 574 U.S. ___ (2015)
Supreme Court of United States.
Argued December 2, 2014; Decided January 13, 2015.

One-Sentence Takeaway

The kidnapping provision of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e) applies when a robber forces another person to go somewhere with him or her, even if that movement is within the same building or over a short distance.

Petitioner Larry Whitfield’s Perspective

Question Presented

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” in committing 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.

Summary of Argumnet

The court of appeals affirmed Whitfield’s conviction on the premise that § 2113(e)’s forced accompaniment provision reaches any forced movement, no matter how insubstantial. That premise is erroneous, and reversal is warranted.

When first enacted, § 2113(e) was one of only a handful of federal crimes punishable by death, and the provision today still carries the highest penalties for any bank robbery that does not result in death. In setting out these heightened penalties, Congress required correspondingly culpable conduct. Pointedly, Congress did not expose defendants to § 2113(e)’s enhanced penalties for forcibly confining a victim 12 against his will, conduct that is typical of most bank robberies. Instead, the provision’s text, structure, and purpose all establish that § 2113(e) was intended for the relatively rare situation in which a defendant forces a victim to travel with him for a substantial distance, such as when a robber takes a hostage out of the bank to facilitate his escape. Here, by contrast, Whitfield required Mrs. Parnell to move only a few feet within her own home while he waited for a friend to pick him up. This Court should hold that § 2113(e), with its mandatory minimum sentence of ten years, does not reach that type of de minimis movement.

1. Beginning with the text, § 2113(e) applies when a robber forces a “person to accompany him” in committing the robbery or while in flight. The word “accompany” itself suggests substantial movement: one does not typically “accompany” another over a distance of a few feet. Section 2113(e) was originally enacted in 1934 and authorities from that time, including dictionary definitions and the contemporary U.S. Code, confirm that the word “accompany” was most typically used to denote travel together over a substantial distance.

2. Even if the plain text left some doubt, the broader structure of § 2113 demonstrates that § 2113(e) requires more than de minimis forced movement. As explained above, § 2113 sets forth a series of graduated crimes, with § 2113(e) addressing the most serious conduct and imposing the most serious penalties.

Reading § 2113(e) as broadly as the government and the court of appeals—so that it covers even de minimis movement in the context of a brief confinement—would gut the logic of § 2113’s penalty structure. Because conduct of that nature is present in most bank robberies, the government’s interpretation would all but erase the statutory distinction between a basic offense under § 2113(a) and an aggravated offense under § 2113(e).

Moreover, when § 2113(e) was enacted, Congress made it one of the handful of capital crimes in the U.S. Code, on par with murder, treason, and rape. It is inconceivable that Congress considered de minimis forced movement of a victim during a robbery— conduct that would be present in most robberies—to warrant capital punishment.

3. The statute’s historical background and legislative history confirm that Congress intended § 2113(e) to cover a narrow set of especially egregious conduct, not the type of de minimis forced movement at issue here. Just weeks before the Senate passed the bank robbery statute in 1934, John Dillinger committed the latest in a string of highly publicized bank robberies in which he used hostages as human shields while fleeing from the bank. Congress surely had conduct of that sort in mind when it made forced accompaniment a capital offense.

Indeed, the House Report and other articles of legislative history repeatedly refer to § 2113(e) as the “kidnapping” provision. While Congress clearly did not import the elements of the federal kidnapping statute into § 2113(e), it is instructive that the contemporary understanding of kidnapping—as shown by the federal statute, the common law, and dictionary definitions— required substantial movement of the victim, not just confinement for a brief period.

4. The government’s broad interpretation should also be rejected because it produces at least two absurd results. First, under the government’s interpretation, an unarmed robber who follows a few steps behind a teller retrieving money from the vault would face significantly higher statutory penalties than one who shoots and (non-fatally) wounds the teller. Second, the applicability of § 2113(e)’s severely enhanced penalties would turn on a trivial distinction irrelevant to culpability: whether the robber who directs a bank employee’s movement stands still while the employee complies or instead takes a few steps in the same direction. These absurd results cannot be what Congress intended.

5. At the very least, the statute’s text, structure, history, and purpose do not permit the Court to conclude that § 2113(e) unambiguously covers de minimis victim movement of the type present here. Accordingly, the rule of lenity requires interpreting the provision narrowly to require substantial victim movement, such as where a robber flees with a hostage.

6. If § 2113(e) requires anything more than de minimis movement, Whitfield is entitled to acquittal. It is undisputed that Whitfield required Mrs. Parnell to move only a few feet within her own home. Movement of only a few feet within a building, which occurs in virtually every bank robbery, is too insubstantial to qualify as forced accompaniment. Accordingly, no reasonable jury could conclude that Whitfield violated § 2113(e).

For these reasons, this Court should reverse the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remand this matter for resentencing.

Respondent United States’ Perspective

Question Presented

While fleeing from police after an aborted bank robbery, petitioner invaded an elderly woman’s home, forced her to go with him to a room where they could not be seen by officers searching the neighborhood, and required her to remain there until she had a heart attack and stopped breathing. The question presented is whether a reasonable jury could have found that petitioner’s conduct violated 18 U.S.C. 2113(e), which makes it a crime for a bank robber to “force[] any person to accompany him without the consent of such person” in “attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission” of a bank robbery or attempted bank robbery.

Summary of Argument

Section 2113(e) of Title 18 prescribes greater penalties for a bank robber who, “in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission of” an offense under Section 2113, “forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person.” Petitioner violated that statute when he invaded the Parnell home and directed Mrs. Parnell to go with him to a room where they could not be seen by the police. He does not dispute that he was “attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission” of an attempted bank robbery that violated Section 2113(a). He also no longer challenges the jury’s finding that he “force[d]” Mrs. Parnell to go with him without her consent. He contends only that no reasonable jury could have found that he forced Mrs. Parnell to “accompany” him because, in his view (Br. 12), a forced accompaniment occurs only when “a defendant forces a victim to travel with him for a substantial distance, such as when a robber takes a hostage out of the bank.” The court of appeals correctly held that Section 2113(e) contains no such limitation.

A. The text of Section 2113(e) provides no support for petitioner’s substantial-distance requirement. The word “accompany” typically connotes joint movement, but it does not require travel over any particular distance and readily encompasses movement from one room to another. In Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298 (1985), for example, this Court wrote that police officers found a suspect in his bedroom and “asked him to get dressed and to accompany them into the living room.” Id. at 300. Dictionary definitions and many other examples confirm that the Court’s usage of the word was both proper and common.

B. The natural interpretation of Section 2113(e)’s text is consistent with the statutory context and structure. To be forced to accompany a bank robber is a terrifying experience for the victim and increases the risk of death or injury even if the forced accompaniment occurs entirely inside a bank or other building. Robberies involving such conduct are properly subject to Section 2113(e)’s increased penalties.

Petitioner asserts (Br. 3, 23) that the court of appeals’ reading would make “virtually every bank robbery” subject to Section 2113(e) because robbers “almost invariably exert some control over the movement of the bank’s employees” and customers. That is incorrect both legally and factually. Because Section 2113(e) covers only forced accompaniment, it does not reach a robber who directs employees and customers to move around the bank without accompanying them. And because most bank robberies are accomplished through means that do not involve any forced movement at all—such as the presentation of a demand note to a teller—giving forced accompaniment its natural scope will not transform the typical bank robbery into an aggravated offense.

Petitioner also errs in contending (Br. 25-27) that Section 2113(e)’s text should be artificially narrowed because the forced-accompaniment offense previously carried a potential sentence of death. When the statute was enacted in 1934, Congress reasonably concluded that the heightened dangers to innocent victims and the need for deterrence could warrant the ultimate punishment for the most extreme forms of the offense. But in 1994, following changes in this Court’s capital-punishment jurisprudence, Congress amended the statute to eliminate the possibility of a capital sentence for a violation of Section 2113(e) not resulting in death. The context and structure of the current statute provide no reason to depart from Section 2113(e)’s natural meaning.

C. The court of appeals’ approach is also consistent with Section 2113(e)’s limited legislative history. Petitioner relies on committee reports referring to Section 2113(e)’s predecessor as prohibiting “kidnapping” in the course of a bank robbery. Congress did not, however, incorporate the elements of kidnapping into the statute. In any event, when Section 2113(e)’s predecessor was enacted in 1934, kidnapping was not understood to require that the victim be moved any particular distance.

D. The court of appeals’ interpretation of Section 2113(e) does not yield absurd results. Congress reasonably concluded that a robber who forces one or more victims to accompany him is more culpable than an offender who commits an unaggravated robbery violating Section 2113(a) or a simple armed robbery violating Section 2113(d). Moreover, the Sentencing Guidelines and the discretion of sentencing judges ensure that a robber who shoots a victim or engages in similar aggravating conduct without violating Section 2113(e) will receive a higher sentence than an unarmed robber who merely forces a victim to accompany him for a short distance. Petitioner has therefore identified no anomalous results—much less the sort of absurdity that would warrant a departure from the statutory text.

E. Petitioner, his amici, and the handful of lowercourt judges that have endorsed departures from Section 2113(e)’s text have advocated a variety of conflicting approaches, all of which lack merit. Petitioner’s proposal that a victim must be transported a “substantial” distance is vague and unworkable. A requirement that the victim travel a particular number of feet or move into or out of a building would be arbitrary. And an approach based on the law of kidnapping would be both legally unsound and a source of confusion. Some state courts have held that moving or confining a victim will not support a separate conviction for kidnapping if it is “incidental” to another offense, such as a robbery or rape. But those courts have struggled to develop and apply a consistent approach. And the concerns motivating their efforts do not apply to Section 2113(e), which does not define a separate crime of kidnapping but rather specifies that a bank robbery involving forced accompaniment is an aggravated offense warranting increased penalties.

F. Finally, petitioner’s reliance on the rule of lenity is misplaced. The rule applies only where a statute contains a grievous ambiguity. It has no role to play where, as here, the text, structure, and other indicators of a statute’s meaning leave no doubt that it covers the conduct at issue.

Syllabus

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.