What’s an “occasion”? Scope of Armed Career Criminal Act depends on the answer.
on Oct 1, 2021 at 7:21 pm
If you break into a storage facility and steal from 10 separate storage units, did you commit 10 offenses “on occasions different from one another”? The Supreme Court will answer this question in Wooden v. United States, yet another case concerning the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The court will hear oral argument on Monday, the first day of the 2021-22 term and the first time the justices will be back in the courtroom for an in-person hearing in more than 18 months.
In 1997, William Dale Wooden broke into a ministorage facility and stole items from 10 different storage units. Wooden pleaded guilty to 10 counts of burglary in Georgia state court and served an eight-year sentence.
Fast-forward 18 years. Wooden was sitting at home one evening when he heard a knock at his door. He answered to find an unknown man, who asked to speak with Wooden’s wife. Wooden invited the stranger inside while he went to get her. The stranger just happened to be a plain-clothes officer who knew of Wooden’s felony convictions. Because people with felony convictions are generally prohibited from possessing firearms, when the officer stepped inside and saw a gun, he arrested Wooden.
The federal government charged Wooden with being a felon in possession of a firearm — a crime for which the maximum punishment is 10 years’ imprisonment. The government also requested that Wooden be designated an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act, in which case Wooden would be subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum. To qualify as an armed career criminal, a defendant must have three prior “violent felony” or “serious drug offense” convictions. Here, the government argued that Wooden’s 10 burglary convictions qualified as 10 “violent felonies” for ACCA purposes. To constitute separate convictions under ACCA, the crimes must be “committed on occasions different from one another.” Wooden argued that the 10 burglaries all occurred on the same “occasion,” and therefore counted for only one qualifying violent felony under ACCA.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed with the government. It held that the crimes were committed on separate “occasions” because Wooden “committed ten distinct acts of burglary.” To the 6th Circuit, it was dispositive that “Wooden could not be in two (let alone ten) of [the storage units] at once.” Much like the 6th Circuit, other circuits had held that crimes are committed on different “occasions” for ACCA purposes when they are committed “successively rather than simultaneously,” as in United States v. Carter, an 11th Circuit case. Other circuits, however, looked beyond temporality and instead considered whether the crimes were committed under sufficiently different circumstances. The 2nd Circuit, for instance, “distinguish[ed] between the defendant who simply commits several offenses in a connected chain of events and the defendant who … commits multiple crimes separated by substantial effort and reflection.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve this split.
Before the Supreme Court both Wooden and the government argue that ACCA’s structure, history, and purpose support their position.
Start first with Wooden’s arguments. He asserts that “[a]s used in ordinary speech,” events occur on the same “occasion” “when they arise from or exploit the same circumstances.” For instance, when you go to the mall and try on shoes, browse for furniture, and buy some ice cream, such an outing would “naturally be described, if part of a continuous trip to the mall, as having taken place on the ‘same occasion.’” Moreover, says Wooden, the legislative history shows that Congress was targeting the “habitual offender” when passing ACCA, as the statute was designed to cover those “who made a career of exploiting distinct criminal opportunities.” Plus, reminds Wooden, under the rule of lenity, any ambiguity in the statute must be resolved in favor of the defendant.
By contrast, the government argues that an “occasion” is “an occurrence, happening, or incident, that takes place at a particular point in time.” Under this understanding, the government urges a “temporal-distinctness test,” such that “the relevant ‘occasion’ for ACCA purposes is the point in time when each offense is ‘committed.’” This reading is superior, says the government, because it “is simple, manageable, and furthers ACCA’s goal of ensuring similar punishment for similarly situated offenders.” And to the extent that Wooden is arguing ACCA sweeps too broadly, responds the government, “it is not for this Court to rewrite the statute so that it covers only what the Court thinks is necessary to achieve what it thinks Congress really intended.”
Correction (Oct. 5 at 8:50 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the petitioner. He is William Dale Wooden, not James Wooden.