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A Night To Remember

Sixth Circuit Clarifies ‘Different Location’ in Robbery Guidelines Enhancement Commentary Requires More Than Herding Victims To Different Room

by Anthony Accurso

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit clarified that the term “different location” in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines commentary definition of “abduction” requires more movement than from a sales floor of a business to the back breakroom for the related robbery enhancement to apply.

Tramain Hill pleaded guilty to Hobbs Act robbery and aiding and abetting for his role in the armed robbery of a Universal Wireless store in Coldwater, Michigan, on August 27, 2016. Hill and his codefendants forced three employees and a female customer from the sales floor to the back breakroom at gunpoint. The robbers then looted the store and fled with approximately $42,000 in stolen cellphones and cash.

At sentencing, the district court applied an enhancement under (b)(4)(A) of Section 2B3.1 of the Guidelines because the victims were “abducted to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape,” resulting in an additional four points and a sentencing range of 130 to 162 months. Hill argued that he should merely be subject to a two-point enhancement under (b)(4)(B), which requires that the victims were “physically restrained to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape,” which would result in a Guidelines range of 110 to 137 months.

Citing a similar case from the Fifth Circuit, the district court overruled Hill’s objection and sentenced him to 130 months imprisonment. United States v. Buck, 847 F.3d 267 (5th Cir. 2017). Hill timely appealed this decision to the Sixth Circuit.

Because the issue over the application of the enhancement turned “mostly on the meaning of the words in a guidelines,” the Court reviewed application of the enhancement de novo. United States v. Bolden, 479 F.3d 455 (6th Cir. 2007).

The issue of application arises from the definition of “abducted” in the commentary notes to Section 2B3.1, which reads as follows: “‘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.” Section 2B3.1 cmt. n.1, referencing Section 1B1.1 cmt. n.1(A).

At issue in the present case is how the term “different location” is interpreted, and different Circuits have reached opposing conclusions. Some Circuits have held that different rooms of within the same business premises will not qualify as a “different location.” United States v. Whatley, 719 F.3d 1206 (11th Cir. 2013); United States v. Eubanks, 593 F.3d 645 (7th Cir. 2010). In contrast, other Circuits have held “different location” to mean that “any different position in a building counts as a different location.” United States v. Buck, 847 F.3d 267 (5th Cir. 2017); United States v. Osborne, 514 F.3d 377 (4th Cir. 2008).  

The Sixth Circuit joined the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits in requiring movement beyond another area within the same business premises. The Court decided, based on a comparison of dictionary definitions, that “the phrase ‘different location’ – by itself – is inherently vague because it can be interpreted at many different levels of generality.” Quoting Whatley. Citing common usage, the Court stated that, “When individuals describe the ‘location’ that has been robbed, they typically refer to the store, bank, or business that was robbed,” not just the sales floor. In this context, a “different location” means “anywhere in the world that is not the place just robbed.” Quoting United States v. Archuleta, 865 F.3d 1280 (10th Cir. 2017).

The Court also considered that the Guidelines definition of “abduction” already includes “accompany” in its wording. The Supreme Court noted “accompany” to possibly include “a victim accompanying a robber from one area within a bank to the vault.” Quoting Whitfield v. United States, 574 U.S. 265 (2015). Therefore, the Court reasoned, “[i]f the Sentencing Commission meant for that short movement to count, it had no reason to add the phrase ‘different location.’”

Finally, the Court noted the two possible enhancements (for “physical restraint” or for “abduction”) should define different conduct as one establishes greater culpability through a larger point assignment. Courts have disagreed on whether herding victims into a defined area without physically restraining them even qualifies for the two-point enhancement, so the Court chose an interpretation that would not be satisfied by merely herding people within a business. Thus, the Court determined that Hill’s movement of his victims from the sales floor to the back breakroom (and binding them) merely qualifies for the two-point enhancement under (b)(4)(B) for “physically restrain[ing]” his victims.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for resentencing with instructions that the two-level physical-restraint enhancement, not the four-level abduction enhancement, be used. See: United States v. Hill, 963 F.3d 528 (6th Cir. 2020). 

Related legal case

United States v. Hill

 

 

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