U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Clever but Ineffective Defense Fails to Free Bank Robbers

In late 2013, a wave of armed bank robberies occurred around Washington, D.C. In October, a bank in Rockland, Maryland, followed by one in Vienna, Virginia, was hit. The next month, a Wells Fargo in Arlington. Just a few weeks later, on New Year's Eve 2013, three men were arrested, just after they robbed another Arlington bank, caught with nearly $48,000 of cash in hand.

It's hard to beat a charge of armed robbery when you're caught literally leaving the bank. It can be even harder to win on appeal, after you've been convicted of almost every charge thrown at you. But that didn't stop two of the robbers, James Larry McNeal and Alphonso Stoddard, from appealing their convictions using some clever novel arguments: one, that the government had failed to show that their guns could shoot; two, that armed bank robbery was not a crime of violence. Somehow, those arguments failed to convince the Fourth Circuit, which upheld their convictions.

Caught Red Handed

Stoddard's bank robbing spree began in earnest on October 29th, 2013. Stoddard, along with James Link, attempted to rob a Wells Fargo in Rockville, Maryland. They left empty handed, but tried their luck again the next night, at the Bank of Georgetown in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Virginia. The men nabbed only $3,500 in that robbery, but had better success robbing a bank Wells Fargo in Arlington a month later, taking $19,000 in cash. In those robberies, an informant claimed, James McNeal drove the getaway car.

The trio's luck ran out on New Years' Eve, however. Having been tipped off by the informant, the FBI started monitoring McNeal's car, eventually catching the men as they fled their final armed robbery in Arlington. (This were no young upstarts, either. When Link was sentenced in 2014, he was 57. Stoddard was 59; McNeal 63.) Stoddard ended up being sentenced in federal court to life in prison and McNeal to 184 months.

A Gun, Sure, but Can It Fire?

Stoddard and McNeal both appealed their convictions -- and they weren't afraid to work with what they had. Among their more interesting arguments was that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the handguns the two were caught with were in fact firearms, as defined by federal law.

That law defines firearms as "any weapon ... which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive." Expert testimony is needed to show that the guns could fire, McNeal and Stoddard argued.

Unsurprisingly, this wasn't a winning argument. The use of a gun is sufficient enough to assume that it is a firearm, absent evidence that it was a fake, the court found.

Just a Peaceful, Nonthreatening Armed Bank Robbery

In a second instance of "well, at least it's a novel theory," the duo argued that their convictions must be set aside because armed bank robbery is not a "crime of violence." In fact, it was such a novel theory that the Fourth Circuit had never addressed it before. But creative as it may be, the argument didn't fly.

Under federal law, a crime of violence is a felony offense that either involves the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force. Is brandishing a gun during an armed robbery enough? Yes, the Fourth Circuit found, since one of the elements of the armed bank robbery charge is that money be taken "by force and violence, or by intimidation." That entails the use of physical force, the Court ruled, putting it in line with every other circuit to address the question so far. Even bank robbery by intimidation requires the threatened use of force, the court found.

We've yet to hear if the appellants will seek to take their novel interpretations up to the Supreme Court.

Related Resources: