Surprising Supreme Court “Accompany” Decision

We had a crazy decision come down from the United States Supreme Court today. In the case of Whitfield v. United States the Supreme Court heard arguments about the definition of the word “accompany.” The Court decided that the word “accompany” in 18 U.S.C. §2113, which creates increased penalties for actions taken during the commission of, or flight from, a bank robbery, means “to go with” even over short distances. In the case, while eluding capture after a failed bank robbery, the defendant entered the home of a 79-year-old woman. There he moved her a short distance into another room where she died of a heart attack. Under the statute, there is a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence when a bank robber “forces a person to accompany him” during the robbery or flight thereafter. The defendant pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial where he was convicted by a jury. On appeal he argued that the word “accompany” must require movement over a substantial distance, and that it should not apply to his moving his victim into the next room. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, affirming the trial court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts holding that “accompany” means “to go with” even over short distances. The Court referred to newspaper articles, a wedding announcement, the dictionary, and British Literature classics to illustrate the clear meaning of the word “accompany.” In response to Petitioner’s argument regarding the severity of this aggravating factor the Court states, “It is simply not in accord with English usage to give ‘accompany’ a meaning that covers only large distances.”

This ruling is patently unfair. How is it possible that the law intends that moving a victim from one room to another is to “accompany” the perpetrator? This clearly intended to mean movement over a greater distance than a few feet. Does that mean that the Supreme Court is saying that there are enhanced penalties where a victim is moved from one side of the room to another? Apparently so. The law clearly intends that the victim be moved some distance or there would not be any enhancement at all. If the law intended to make such conduct come with such a stiff sentence, then the law would have simply been that any robbery or flight from a robbery where the defendant has contact with another person is subject to an enhanced penalty. As the law does not say this, the Supreme Court was wrong in deciding that even a few feet is enough to trigger the enhancement that the victim was forced to “accompany” the defendant during the commission of his crime or the flight thereafter.


This post is also available in: Spanish

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