Bank Robbery, “Dangerous” Weapons and Due Process

 Posted on December 00, 0000 in Criminal Defense

According to the most recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are more than 5,000 bank robberies each year. Many of these robberies involve the use (or threatened use) of a firearm. While there are only a handful of injuries, including death, as the result of bank robberies, the federal government nonetheless punishes offenders severely, especially if the a weapon is brandished by any of the robbers.

Many bank robberies are carried out by groups of two or more individuals. In the eyes of the law, anyone who participates in a conspiracy to rob a bank is equally guilty, even if some of the conspirators do not take part in the actual robbery. This issue came up in a recent case involving a convicted bank robber in Illinois, who unsuccessfully argued for a more lenient sentence after he “got cold feet” and abandoned his co-conspirators in mid-robbery.

United States v. Bey

One day in February 2011, David Schoenhaar entered an Associated Bank branch in Waukegan. He brandished a pellet gun and directed the bank employees to fill a bag with cash. Schoenhaar then “ordered the employees into a basement bathroom, where they remained for several minutes before calling the police,” according to an FBI statement. The local police apprehended Schoenhaar shortly thereafter.

A few months later, in May 2011, the FBI arrested and charged two other men, James Bey and Trevor L. Gregory, as co-conspirators. (A fourth person, a female bank employee, was also charged as an “inside man.”) The government said Bey and Gregory helped Schoenhaar plan the robbery, and Bey had given Schoenhaar the pellet gun he used that day. Schoenhaar expected Bey and Gregory to be waiting for him outside the bank, but they had changed their minds about carrying out the robbery and left Schoehnhaar to fend for himself.

The Alford Plea

Bey entered what is known as an “Alford plea” to the bank robbery and conspiracy charges. An Alford plea means the defendant does not admit guilt, but he acknowledges the government has sufficient evidence to convict him before a jury. In other words, Bey waived his right to a trial and agreed to be sentenced despite technically maintaining his innocence.

The trial court sentenced Bey to more than 7½ years in prison. Bey appealed the sentence, but the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed the lower court's decision in an opinion issued on April 10 of this year.

Defining “Dangerous”

In determining sentence, the trial judge held it against Bey that he gave Schoenhaar a “dangerous weapon” that was used to commit the robbery. On appeal, Bey argued that he never intended for Schoenhaar to use, or even brandish, the weapon, and that nobody was injured. The appeals court said that was all irrelevant. What mattered was that Bey had given Schoenhaar the gun and that he entered the bank with it. As for whether a pellet gun is a “dangerous weapon,” the appeals court said that the fact it “closely resembles” a more lethal firearm is sufficient. “Not that pellet guns are harmless unless aimed at small rodents,” the appeals court observed. “People have been killed by them.”

Legal Lessons

The key lesson from this case is that a person may be criminally liable for an act he or she does not personally commit. “Conspiracy” charges may incorporate all sorts of seemingly innocent acts that nonetheless further behavior the government considers criminal. That is why if you are facing a criminal investigation or trial, it is essential to have the assistance of an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you have any questions.
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