[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Tuesday unanimously affirmed [opinion, PDF] the conviction of a bank robber for violating the forced accompaniment provision of the Bank Robbery and Incidental Crimes section of the US Code, 18 USC § 2113(e) [text]. An individual is subject to enhanced penalties under 2113(e) when one “forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person” in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery. In Whitfield v. United States [docket], a failed bank robbery in North Carolina sent the petitioner fleeing from the police, and he entered the home of a 79-year-old woman in an attempt to avoid apprehension. While inside the home, Whitfield directed the elderly woman to move a distance of four to nine feet within her home, which resulted in her suffering a fatal heart attack. Whitfield hid nearby and was later apprehended and charged with a violation of § 2113(e), for forcing the woman to accompany him while moving from one room to another within her home as he fled the police. In defense of the charge, Whitfield argued the distance was not substantial [SCOTUSblog op-ed] to prove forced accompaniment. The court disagreed, holding that accompaniment does encompass short distances or travel within a single building, for the purposes of § 2113(e).
In the relatively short opinion, the court did not review the justices’ dissatisfaction with the statutory provision [SCOTUSblog op-ed], which was addressed at oral argument in December. At oral argument, the court analyzed the difficulties associated with a broad or narrow reading of accompaniment during the course of a bank robbery. If broadly construed, the provision may give prosecutors enlarged discretion to charge a number of incidental movements as forced accompaniment under § 2113(e), such as a a grab of the arm where one does not move one’s feet, as leverage to obtain a guilty plea. Alternatively, a narrow reading would create a hard to enforce test subject to a judicial interpretation over what distance must be satisfied to qualify as forced accompaniment. Tuesday’s ruling makes clear that traveling more than a few feet, and certainly from one room to another within a single building, is substantial to prove forced accompaniment under § 2113(e).