Supreme Court Rules That Minimal Movement Can Trigger Sentence Enhancement by Blue LLP


Posted on 20 Jan 2015


Supreme Court Rules That Minimal Movement Can Trigger Sentence Enhancement

In a recent decision, Whitfield v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a person who forces another to accompany him any distance in the course of or fleeing from a bank robbery is subject to a statutory sentencing enhancement.

The facts of the case are as follows.  The defendant, Larry Whitfield, while fleeing the police after a botched bank robbery, entered the home of a 79 year old woman.  Once inside, he had her move from the hallway into a room that was approximately 4 to 9 feet away. The woman suffered a fatal heart attack, and Whitfield fled.  He was found hiding nearby.

A federal grand jury indicted Whitfield for violating 18 U.S.C s2113(e), which provides:

Whoever, in committing any offense defined in this section, or in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission of such offense . . . 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.

A jury convicted Whitfield of the offense, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction.
 
Whitfield argued on appeal that he should not be subjected to the sentencing enhancement because he did not move his victim over a substantial distance.  The Court, rejecting his argument, reasoned:
But it does not seem to us that the danger of a frorced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed.  Consdider, for example, a hostage-taker's movement of one of his victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door.
Interestingly, the Court narrowly interpreted the statute as proscribing forced movement where a defendant accompanies his victim(s) -- "that is, to go somewhere with them."  For example, if Whitfield had told his victim to lock herself in the adjacent room without accompanying her to that room, the enhancement arguably would not have applied.
 

MANY FEDERAL CRIMES HAVE MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES

 
The Court's reasoining in Whitfield is consistent with the application of United States Sentencing Guideline Section 2B3.1.  That section requires a sentencing enhancement  “[i]f any person was abducted to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape[.]”  “‘Abducted’ means that a victim was forced to accompany an offender to a different location.  For example, a bank robber’s forcing a bank teller from the bank into a getaway car would constitute an abduction.”  USSG §1B1.1 cmt. n. 1(A).  “[T]he abduction enhancement is intended, at least in part, to protect victims against the additional harm that may result from being forced to accompany an offender, such as being taken as a hostage during a robbery or being isolated to prolong a sexual assault.”  United States v. Osborne, 514 F.3d 377, 387 (4th Cir. 2008).
 
Although the Court in Whitfield did not provide a bright line for the distance that a defendant must force someone to move in order for the enhancement ot apply, the Court made it fairly clear that any distance will suffice.  After all, the Court upheld application of the enhancement when the victim was moved just 4 to 9 feet, despite its pronouncement that "accompaniment does not embrace minimal movement[.]"