Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Whitfield v. United States: De Minimis Movements

Whitfield v. United States
Docket No. 13-9026
Argument Date: Dec 2, 2014

On December 2, 2014, the Supreme Court of United States will decide whether 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), which applies to a bank robber who forces another person to accompany him while in flight from the crime scene, requires proof of more than a de minimis movement of the victim.  § 2113(e) states: “whoever, in committing any offense defined in this section [bank robbery], … 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.”  Federal circuit courts differ on how to interpret the words “to accompany him.”  The Fifth and Tenth Circuits have held force-accompaniment only happens upon a showing of substantial movement of a victim as compared to what usually happens during a bank robbery.  However, the Fourth Circuit held that this section applies to all forced movements no matter how insubstantial.

On September 26, 2008, Larry Whitfield and Quanterrious McCoy tried to rob the Fort Financial Credit Union in North Carolina.  After their failed attempt, Whitfield and McCoy separated and fled.  Whitfield ran into Mary Parnell’s house where he attempted to contact a friend to pick him up.  At his time Whitfield engaged in conduct that caused his forced-accompaniment conviction.  Upon entering Parnell’s house Whitefield saw that Parnell started crying.  He then stated, “I don’t have no weapons and I’m not here to hurt you.  I just need somewhere to stay.”  In one statement, Whitfield indicates that he asked Parnell where he can hide and told her “to go into the computer room.”  This statement gives the implication of force.  However, another statement indicates, after asking Parnell where he can stay, that they both “just took … the first room” and sat down on the chairs.  These statements show de minimis force of part of Whitfield.  Shortly after, while Whitfield was trying to contact his friend, Parnell died of a heart attack.  Whitfield ran out of the house and was arrested in the woods.  McCoy is later found hiding under a parked car.  The Court of Appeals affirmed Whitfield’s conviction on the grounds that his conduct, no matter how insubstantial, falls under § 2113(e) forced accompaniment provision.

Whitfield argues that Congress intended the provision to apply in rare circumstances, such as when robbers take hostages to help them escape.  Legislative history on § 2113 called the provision the “kidnapping provision” after John Dillinger used human shields to flee from banks.  Therefore, Congress intended § 2113(e) to cover egregious conduct and not trivial, de minimis movement.  Also, the word “accompany” refers to substantial distance, and in this case Parnell only moved a few feet within her home.  Under the Government’s broad interpretation, if during a bank robbery any person is forced to move, the robber will face significantly higher penalties. Whitfield sees this as an extreme provision that Congress did not intend.

The Government, on the other hand, argues that the statute provides no support for the substantial distance requirement.  And the word “accompany” only refers to two or more people moving and does not require travel.  The forced accompanying of a bank robber is a terrifying experience that needs to be subjected to increased penalties.  The Government separates that all bank robberies that require forced movement by focusing on the word “accompanying.”  Accompanying is when the robber follows the victim after giving them a direct order and is different from forced movement generally.  And finally the requirement that the victim travel a distance seems arbitrary to the Government.  The distance test would be unpredictable and hard to mandate.

The Government’s arguments are weak but have found success because the defendant is not able to prove the statute says anything favoring its position.  The Government’s argument about accompanying makes no sense since robbers who force victims around the bank usually follow someone unintentionally.  I believe the Supreme Court will overturn the conviction of Whitfield on the basis that the movement being so trivial or de minimis it can fall under force-accompanied movement.

Written by Hassan Mukhlis
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

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