Can you receive a term of life imprisonment for forcing someone to accompany you to a different room in their own house?: Justice Scalia and a unanimous Supreme Court say “yes” in Whitfield v. United States of America, (though to be fair, I should note that Mr. Whitfield had just tried to rob a bank).
18 U.S.C. 2113 (e) has a long and venerable history, even by the storied standards of the federal criminal code. It was originally enacted in 1934 in response to “an outbreak of bank robberies committed by John Dillinger and others” Carter v. United States of America, 530 U.S. 255, 280 (2000) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
In addition to robbing banks, these malefactors would, logically enough, then seek to avoid apprehension. In order to do this, they would frequently pause to take hostages, thus distracting and/or hamstringing pursuing law enforcement.
To address this evil, piled on top of another evil, Congress enacted Section 2113 which criminalizes the act of “forc[ing] any person to accompany [one] without the consent of such person…” while avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension (for one of the defined offenses). The statute has a sliding scale of penalties: a mandatory minimum of 10 years, 20 years for bank robbers who use “force and violence” or “intimidation”, 2113 (a), 25 years for those who assault or put in jeopardy the life of another “by use of a dangerous weapon or device”, 2113 (d) and a maximum sentence of life if a fatality results.
The law does has an interesting historical pedigree, but rarely has it been invoked in a more unfortunate case than that of Larry Whitfield and his unfortunate victim, 79 year old Mary Parnell.
Mr. Whitfield had just robbed a bank. Seeking shelter, he entered Ms. Parnell’s house through an open door and attempted to guide her from the hallway to a computer room a few feet away. There, Ms. Parnell, no doubt traumatized and terrified, suffered a fatal heart attack.
Mr. Whitfield was soon captured, indicted under 2113 (e) and convicted. On appeal, he challenged the 2113 (e) conviction arguing that his minimal movement of Ms. Parnell of between four and nine feet (his estimate), occurring as it did for a very brief period, inside her own home did not meet the definition of a “forced accompaniment”. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument and affirmed.
Reasonable minds might differ as to whether Mr. Whitfield’s actions fell within the intended ambit of the statute. The Supreme Court, however, and Justice Scalia in particular did not seem to struggle long or hard in rejecting this argument. Citing to sources as diverse as the Oxford English Dictionary, Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and “Pride and Prejudice” by the great Jane Austen, the Court found unanimously that “to accompany” someone can does not require movement over any substantial distance.
All in all, not a shocking result. An unfortunate, elderly and sympathetic victim—an unsympathetic and predatory defendant and a criminal statute with a long and distinguished pedigree—not a great recipe for the defense.