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Perhaps defining an “occasion” is not so difficult after all

William Dale Wooden burglarized 10 units in a single storage facility, and pleaded guilty to 10 counts of burglary in Georgia state court. The question the Supreme Court faced in Wooden v. United States was whether the 10 burglaries occurred during the same “occasion” or on separate occasions.

The difference was not just semantic. The Armed Career Criminal Act mandates a 15-year mandatory minimum for Section 922(g) offenders (the federal felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm statute) with at least three prior violent felony or serious drug offense convictions, so long as those convictions were “committed on occasions different from one another.” Thus, if Wooden’s 10 burglaries occurred on separate “occasions,” he qualified for an enhanced sentence under ACCA. If the burglaries occurred on the same occasion, however, the maximum sentence Wooden faced was 10 years.

The government argued that Wooden’s 10 burglaries were committed on different occasions because an “occasion happens at a particular point in time — the moment when an offense’s elements are established.” Wooden urged a more holistic approach for defining an occasion that considered not only “the precise timing but also other circumstances of the crime.”

On Monday, all nine justices agreed that Wooden’s 10 burglaries occurred during the same “occasion.” Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan explained that both the “ordinary meaning” of “occasion,” the structure of ACCA, and the occasion clause’s history dictate this result. 

Kagan first explained that according to its ordinary meaning, an occasion is “essentially an episode or event.” The opinion uses the facts here to bear this out. If one learned about Wooden’s burglary spree, Kagan explained, they would say: “On one occasion, Wooden burglarized ten units in a storage facility.” A person would not say: “On ten occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.” Nor would the average person describe Wooden breaking into each separate unit as its own independent occasion. Indeed, one need only turn to the dictionary to confirm this to be true, as the word occasion “commonly refers to an event, occurrence, happening, or episode.” 

Kagan then demonstrated why the structure of ACCA supports this understanding of “occasion.” To be eligible for an enhanced sentence under ACCA, a person must be convicted of three violent felonies or serious drug offenses, and those three offenses must be committed on “occasions different from one another.” Kagan reasoned that “by treating each temporally distinct offense as its own occasion,” the government’s interpretation of the word “occasion” essentially collapses “two separate statutory conditions.”

Finally, Kagan noted that the history of the occasions clause supports this interpretation. Congress amended ACCA to include the clause in order to ensconce the solicitor general’s position in United States v. Petty, a 1986 case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. There, the SG argued that ACCA should be triggered only when a person’s prior convictions result from “multiple criminal episodes” even though such a requirement was not founded in ACCA’s text. Kagan explained that Congress amended ACCA to include the separate occasions requirement. Disagreeing both with this use of legislative history and its accuracy, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett did not join this part of the opinion.

Perhaps recognizing that courts may struggle to define an occasion going forward, Kagan gave some guideposts. If offenses are committed “close in time,” they “will often count as part of one occasion; not so offenses separate by substantial gaps in time or significant intervening events.” She explained that in defining an occasion, “proximity of location is also important; the further away crimes take place, the less likely they are components of the same criminal event.” Lastly, Kagan noted that “the character and relationship of the offenses may make a difference: The more similar or intertwined the conduct giving rise to the offenses … the more apt they are to compose one occasion.” She said that “applying this approach” will usually “be straightforward and intuitive.

In a concurrence, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined (mostly) by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was not sure how straightforward his approach would be given that different people may have “different intuitions about the same set of facts.” So in Gorsuch’s view, the rule of lenity – the principle that courts should resolve statutory ambiguities in favor of criminal defendants – should come into play when courts struggle to decide whether crimes were committed as part of a single “occasion.” Gorsuch argued that historically, the rule of lenity has played an important constitutional role in protecting defendants from vague criminal statutes. Thus, Gorsuch concluded that when courts have reasonable doubts about applying the occasions clause, those doubts “should be resolved in favor of liberty.” 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote his own concurrence to caution against resorting to the rule of lenity in the way Gorsuch suggested. In Kavanaugh’s view, the rule of lenity applies only when a statute is grievously ambiguous. Thus “properly applied, the rule of lenity … rarely if ever plays a role because, as in other contexts, hard interpretative conundrums, even relating to complex rules, can often be resolved.” Gorsuch rejected this “talk about ‘grievous’ ambiguities,” asserting that such phrasing is a recent innovation of the court’s case law, which does not “supply a court with a sound basis for ignoring or restricting one of the most ancient rules of statutory construction – let alone one so closely connected to the Constitution’s protections.”

In the end, while all the justices agreed that Wooden’s 10 burglary convictions did not constitute separate convictions that occurred on separate occasions, there is sure to be more litigation surrounding ACCA’s occasions clause. It likely will not be long before ACCA is at the court again.

Recommended Citation: Daniel Harawa, Perhaps defining an “occasion” is not so difficult after all, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 8, 2022, 1:26 PM),