WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that bank robbers are subject to mandatory 10-year sentences if they force others to accompany them for even very short distances.
The case concerned Larry Whitfield, a North Carolina man who in 2008 entered the home of Mary Parnell, a 79-year-old woman, while fleeing the police after a botched bank robbery.
Whitfield forced Parnell, who was upset and crying, to move with him from her living room to another room about 9 feet away. She suffered a fatal heart attack, and Whitfield was captured not long after the incident.
The question in the case was whether the short movement inside Parnell’s home was enough to subject Whitfield to prosecution under a 1934 federal law that calls for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence when a criminal “forces any person to accompany him” during a bank robbery or while fleeing.
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Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the word “accompany” must be given its ordinary meaning.
“It was, and still is,” he wrote, quoting old newspaper articles and other sources, “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.”
Scalia added examples from English literature, quoting passages from Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
Truly minor movements do not count, Scalia wrote.
“It must constitute movement that would normally be described as from one place to another,” he said, “even if only from one spot within a room or outdoors to a different one.”
The 1934 law was enacted in reaction to a spate of bank robberies committed by John Dillinger and others. That history, Whitfield argued, should inform the court’s understanding of the scope of the law.
Scalia rejected that argument.
“The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages,” Scalia wrote, “but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that.”
“It does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed,” he said. “Consider, 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.”