Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

The Federal Bank Robbery Act: Why the Current Split Involving the Use of Force Requirement for Attempted Bank Robbery Is Really an Exception

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

The Federal Bank Robbery Act: Why the Current Split Involving the Use of Force Requirement for Attempted Bank Robbery Is Really an Exception

Article excerpt


Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were about the age of typical first-year law students, just twenty-one and twenty-two years old respectively, when they embarked on their infamous bank-robbing spree in the spring of 1932. (1) Their "brief era of banditry" would last for little more than two years, a period during which they robbed at least ten banks in five Midwestern states, deliberately skirting the borders of those states to take advantage of what was then an almost total lack of communication and coordination among law enforcement in different jurisdictions. (2) The tactic, however, was hardly a trade secret, and at the time robbing banks was a growth industry. (3)

In fact, the years between 1931 and 1935 are collectively referred to as "The Public Enemies Era," a time during which the number of bank robberies in the United States skyrocketed, thanks in no small part to a pantheon of notorious gangsters carved from the unyielding granite of the Great Depression: John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, to name a few. (4) Many people saw these colorful criminals as folk heroes, striking at the banks--the very institutions millions of Americans, including some members of Congress, blamed for their sudden plunge into poverty. (5) Bonnie and Clyde were no exception. (6) The image of star-crossed young lovers as avenging outlaws was as irresistible to the press and the public then as it is now. (7) Public opinion, however, began to turn as the body count rose. (8) At least nine police officers were killed during Bonnie and Clyde's spree, in addition to several innocent civilians. (9)

Bonnie and Clyde's "final run" came in May 1934, when investigators who had studied their movements set up an ambush along a secluded country road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. (10) Like many of their hapless victims, the young outlaws never stood a chance. When their stolen Ford Deluxe finally appeared, police opened fire on the vehicle with Thompson submachine guns, and they continued firing until they ran out of bullets." Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were both killed, the coroner later determining that each suffered "many potentially fatal wounds." (12)

Bonnie and Clyde's grisly and glamorized story is not only representative of the broader criminal trend of the time, but also encapsulates the specific policy considerations behind the passage of the Bank Robbery Act later that same summer: ending the bloodshed, and eliminating the exploitable jurisdictional weaknesses between states. (13)

In the years since, the Act has provided a comprehensive scheme for prosecuting and penalizing those who steal from a federally insured bank. (14) The statute encompasses the underlying crimes of entering with felonious intent, robbery, petit and grand larceny, and receiving property stolen from a bank. (15)

Even today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ("FBI") stated priority in terms of enforcing the Bank Robbery Act reflects these foundational policy considerations of safeguarding the public and closing the jurisdictional gaps: "[The FBI] focuses its investigative resources on those suspects who pos[e] the greatest threats to the public, including the most violent and/or the most prolific serial offenders who often cross jurisdictional boundaries." (16)

However, it is now said that a split exists among the federal circuits regarding the necessary elements of attempted bank robbery as prescribed by the Act. The split specifically concerns the use of force, violence or intimidation under the first paragraph of [section] 2113(a), which reads in relevant part:

Whoever, by force and violence, or by intimidation, takes, or attempts 
to take, from the person or presence of another, or obtains or 
attempts to obtain by extortion any property or money or any other 
thing of value belonging to, or in the care, custody, control, 
management, or possession of, any bank, credit union, or any savings 
and loan association . … 
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