Unintended Ambiguity: Sentencing Enhancements for “Physical Restraint” in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

BACKGROUND

Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) through the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The USSC established Federal Sentencing Guidelines––effective since 1987—to provide more structure and certainty to the administration of punishment in the federal court system. The sentencing guidelines aim to assign fair, relatively consistent sentences by providing different levels of offense seriousness: as the crimes get more serious, the offense level correspondingly rises. The aim of these Guidelines was to take away what many previously viewed as unfettered discretion held by federal trial judges. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in United States v. Booker in 2005, these Guidelines are no longer mandatory, but judges must provide an explanation when exercising their discretion to depart from them.

The Guidelines include enhancements, which are provisions that increase the length of a sentence for a crime. Enhancements generally fall within two broad categories: 1) non-recidivist enhancements, which may stem from the particular circumstances of the offense or 2) recidivist enhancements, which are based on the defendant’s criminal history. In robbery charges there is, among other circumstance-based enhancements, an enhancement that increases the offense level by two levels if any person was physically restrained to facilitate commission of the offense or to facilitate escape. The Guidelines define “physically restrained” as “the forcible restraint of the victim such as by being tied, bound, or locked up.” 

THE ISSUE

Can the sentencing enhancement for physically restraining a victim apply when the defendant only threatened the victim with verbal threats and a firearm, but without actual physical contact?

THE SPLIT

A majority of circuits have taken a position on this issue and can generally be divided into two camps: 1) those that believe it can suffice to restrain from movement due to threats and 2) those that require actual physical contact. 

The First, Fourth, and Tenth Circuits take the position that threats without contact can suffice for “physical restraint” to have occurred. In United States v. Miera (2008), the Tenth Circuit held that the sentencing enhancement applied where the defendant stood in front of the bank’s door waving a gun and demanded that the bank’s occupants “don’t move.” The court posited that physical restraint is not limited to physical touching and that keeping someone from doing something is inherent within the concept of restraint. In the court’s view, the enhancement would not apply if Miera had simply walked up to the teller’s station with a gun visible in his waistband and demanded money. However, because Miera blocked the exit, pointed the gun, and commanded the individuals to not move, the actions in the aggregate amounted to physical restraint.

Similarly, the Fourth Circuit case United States v. Dimache (2011) involved the defendant pointing a gun at and threatening multiple bank tellers, ordering them to the floor and telling them not to move. The court determined these actions constituted physical restraint because the essential character of physical restraint is the deprivation of a person’s freedom of personal movement. So long as a victim is prevented from moving due to a threat of physical force, that is enough; physical restraint is not limited to actual touching. A case in the First Circuit, United States v. Wallace (2006), involved a defendant who blocked the victim’s path when she tried to escape and ordered her at gunpoint to stop. The court stated that the aggregate of the circumstances left “no doubt” that the one victim was physically restrained. 

The Second, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits hold differently, requiring “restraint” to involve actual physical contact. The Second Circuit in United States v. Taylor (2020) vacated the district court’s application of the sentencing enhancement and established its own standard in doing so. According to the Second Circuit, a finding of physical restraint is based on three factors: 1) the restraint must be physical (as opposed to mental); 2) it must be restraint, and not force, restricting the victim’s freedom of movement; and 3) it must be more than a direction to move that is typical of most robberies, given that it must facilitate—not constitute—the offense. Under those factors, “herding victims into a defined area” does not qualify as physical restraint. The court stressed in its reasoning that the enhancement should not be given excessive application to the point where it could apply to virtually every robbery (in which case the only instances the enhancement would not apply would be where the premises was unoccupied or where the robber actually instructed the victims that they should feel free to move about or leave).

The Fifth Circuit in United States v. Garcia, the Seventh Circuit in United States v. Herman, and the D.C. Circuit in United States v. Drew each stress the importance of the word “physical” as a modifier of “restraint.” The Fifth Circuit noted that “restraint” by itself may have many forms (physical, mental, moral, etc.) and that the word “physical” is doing at least some work. The D.C. Circuit similarly commented that physical restraint “must, as the language plainly recites, be physical.” The Seventh Circuit stated that “(w)ords should mean something . . . that the Guidelines call for physical restraint tells us that not all restraints warrant the two-level enhancement.” In other words, the Seventh Circuit has adopted a standard of looking at the defendant’s actions, not the victim’s inactions. 

LOOKING FORWARD

Congress intended the USSC to establish Guidelines that bring about more consistency in sentencing, not less. The “physical restraint” sentencing enhancement is a topic that is ripe for review, as circuit courts have divided on this issue. Even circuits in agreement have engendered their own distinct tests. The Supreme Court to date has denied certiorari to cases involving this subject. The Court must address the circuit split to resolve this issue and provide jurisprudential consistency. Until it does, criminal defendants will be given disparate sentences based on the jurisdiction in which they are convicted.