We handle lots of federal sentencing hearings, in Atlanta, Savannah, Macon, and throughout the federal courts in Georgia and other states as well. We are always interested when courts interpret laws that can impact the sentence that one of our clients might receive. This morning, the United States Supreme Court interpreted a law that impacts the sentence to be imposed on someone who robs a bank and is prosecuted in federal court. The law was passed by Congress in response to a spate of robberies committed by the notorious John Dillinger in 1934. The law requires a minimum of 10 years, and up to a life sentence, if the Defendant “forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person”. In the case of the unfortunate Larry Whitfield, the high Court was faced with a situation where foolish Larry muffed a robbery, fled, then broke into an elderly lady’s home, where he made her move 9 feet from one room to another, and she then she died. The sentencing judge hit Larry with the enhanced penalty based on forced accompaniment. A unanimous Supreme Court this morning upheld the sentence, the opinion can be read here.
I previously posted about this case here. I pointed out how the Defendant argued that a mere movement of 9 feet cannot be what Congress had in mind when they passed this serious sentencing enhancement for robbers who force a victim to go with the criminal.
In rejecting the Defendant’s claims, the Supreme Court noted that this particular language was put into the bank robbery law in 1934. Congress enacted the forced-accompaniment provision in 1934 after “an outbreak of bank robberies committed by John Dillinger and others.” So, like a good strict constructionist that he is, Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, looked to contemporary uses of the phrase “to accompany”. “It was, and still is, perfectly natural to speak of accompanying someone over a relatively short distance, for example: from one area within a bank ‘to the vault’; ‘to the altar’ at a wedding; ‘up the stairway’; or into, out of, or across a room”, according to Justice Scalia. His examples all came from newspapers from that era.
The Defendant made a series of arguments based on the structure of the law, and how Congress could not have envisioned a life sentence simply because a person was moved 9 feet during a robbery escape gone awry. Unimpressed with this argument, Justice Scalia wrote: “The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that. It is simply not in accord with English usage to give ‘accompany’ a meaning that covers only large distances.”
While this case is rather rare, I nevertheless applaud the defense attorneys who kept plugging and tried to save their client some time.