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“Forced Accompaniment”: SCOTUS Upholds and Applies 1934 Dillinger Law

The way in which our legal system works, on the most basic level, is that there are a series of laws that are built around the way in which our civil society reacts to moral and ethical indicators, and as society progresses, our laws reflect that change. This concept of constant legal change to mirror society’s attitude and values toward moral and ethical issues is generally how our system functions. Advocates in favor of women suffrage, racial integration, and same-sex marriage agree that amendments to (or flat out eradication of) past laws help keep our society progressive and flexible to new issues of the day. However, sometimes we find that past laws still have significant pull on our current system. In those moments, the court system must decide if the law should stay or go.

The 1934 John Dillinger Law: Bank Robberies and Forced Accompaniment

The United States Supreme Court decided to preserve and apply a 1934 law to a recent robbery case. The issue was deciding what constituted forced accompaniment during a robbery. The law was initially brought into effect in 1934 as a response to John Dillinger and the string of bank robberies which plagued the 1930s and 1940s. The purpose of the federal law was to evaluate the different actions that bank robbers would take during a robbery and base their punishment on the extent in which the bank robbers harmed the bank and general population.

What is Forced Accompaniment?

The 1934 law described the crime of forced accompaniment to include the situation where robbers took hostages and forced them to leave with the robbers as a human shield or as a bargaining chip to leave safely from the scene. Forced accompaniment led to 10 years tacked on to any robber who forcibly moved another person without their consent. The United States Supreme Court answered the question of what forced accompaniment means – in other words, is there a specific distance or duration by which a robber must force another person to move?

Whitfield v. United States

The case which brought up this issue dealt with a botched bank robbery that took place in North Carolina. Larry Whitfield, in 2008, fled from his failed robbery attempt into an elderly woman’s home. Whitfield forced the woman to move between her living room and another room, constituting a move of about nine feet. The elderly woman died from a heart attack shortly after, and Whitfield was captured. The question that was held up to the U.S. Supreme Court was whether nine feet constituted forced accompaniment.

The Effect of Upholding and Applying Old Laws: Where Interpretation and Meaning are Crucial

This is one of the rare situations where interpretation of a law can make the difference between a 12 year conviction and a 22 year conviction; Whitfield received 22 years in prison because of the added mandatory 10-year requirement for forced accompaniment during a bank robbery. It made little to no difference that he did not move her from her home, nor that he moved her while they were in her home rather than the bank. Because he still had not been arrested, the bank robbery was still in action even though it was no longer at the scene, and nine feet was enough to qualify as an accompaniment.

The Meaning of “Accompany” Makes All the Difference

Justice Scalia, known for his adamant attitude toward originalism, the idea that the laws should be understood in the plain meaning and in the context in which they were written rather than any type of interpretation, wrote that “accompany” must be understood in its ordinary meaning. He wrote that accompany described a movement from one spot to another, and in this case, Whitfield did just that, regardless of the measurements or duration of the move.

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