Does going on a burglary spree once make you “a career criminal” eligible for a harsher sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act? On Monday, the Supreme Court held in Wooden v. United States that the answer was “no.”
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Chased by His Past
In 1997, William Dale Wooden and a group of friends unlawfully entered a storage building in Georgia and stole items from 10 storage units in the same facility, crushing the drywall between the units to move from one to the next. Georgia prosecutors charged them with 10 counts of burglary—though in a single indictment, as the state law required “crimes arising from the same conduct” to be prosecuted together. Wooden then pleaded guilty on all counts and was sentenced to eight years in prison for each count, with the sentences running concurrently.
In 2014, Wooden was out of prison and living a new life with his wife in a mobile home in Tennessee. In the early morning hours of a November day, a plainclothes police officer was in Wooden’s neighborhood trying to locate someone called Ben Harelson to serve a warrant for his arrest. The police officer had become acquainted with Wooden’s wife through conducting “knock and talks” (a police investigative technique used when there is not sufficient evidence to obtain a search warrant, in which an officer approaches a private residence and requests consent to search) in the neighborhood, and he had even coached her grandson in football. The officer had thus learned that both Wooden and his wife were convicted felons.
The police officer knocked on Wooden’s door and asked if he could step inside and speak with his wife. When Wooden turned around to get his wife, the officer observed that Wooden was carrying an assault-style rifle, and thus proceeded to detain him. Wooden’s wife then consented to the police officer looking around the house to search for Harelson. The police officer did not find Harelson, but did find more firearms—and placed Wooden under arrest.
The ACCA and the Circuit Split
A federal jury convicted Wooden for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of federal law. The main issue at the sentencing hearing was whether Wooden’s 1997 burglaries should be considered as committed in one single occasion or in 10 different ones, for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).
The ACCA applies when (1) an offender has three previous convictions for specified felonies, and (2) those felonies were committed on occasions different from one another. The phrase “committed on occasions different from one another” was added to the statute as a result of the Eighth Circuit case United States v. Petty, in which the court originally imposed the ACCA’s mandatory minimum sentence on a defendant who had six previous convictions for simultaneously robbing six people at a restaurant. In that case, the prosecuting solicitor general later confessed error, acknowledging that Congress had intended the ACCA to apply only to defendants whose convictions had arisen from distinct “criminal episodes,” not to a defendant who had been convicted on several counts for the same event.
In Wooden, the district court judge decided that the 1997 burglaries should be considered 10 separate occasions—one for each storage unit robbed—and thus gave the defendant an enhanced sentence of almost 16 years in prison. Had the sentencing enhancements of the ACCA not been applied, Wooden would have received a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with the trial court in classifying Wooden’s 1997 burglary “spree” as 10 different occasions. The Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits had taken similar positions in the past, ruling that crimes that occurred sequentially rather than simultaneously constituted “different occasions.”
Wooden might have encountered better luck in other Circuits. For example, the First Circuit uses a more holistic “totality of circumstances” analysis, such as temporal or physical distance between offenses. The Second Circuit even considers factors as nuanced as whether the defendant had a “realistic opportunity for substantial reflection” between offenses, “during which time he could have chosen to end his criminal activity.”
Resolving the circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Wooden’s judgment, rejecting the Sixth Circuit’s rule that crimes occurring sequentially always occur on different occasions. SCOTUS held that “[o]ffenses committed close in time, in an uninterrupted course of conduct, will often count as part of one occasion; not so offenses separated by substantial gaps in time or significant intervening events.”
What Is an “Occasion”?
In deciding what constituted an “occasion,” the Supreme Court deemed that the appropriate analysis should be a multi-factored approach. Rather than merely relying on whether the offenses were sequential, courts should consider timing, location, character, and the relationship of the offenses when deciding if there was one or multiple occasions.
Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Kagan turned to the ordinary meaning of the word “occasion.” She tried to imagine how a regular person, like a journalist reporting the burglary, would have described the events of the evening. She concluded that an ordinary person would have describe the situation as Wooden burglarizing 10 different storage units in one episode, rather than as 10 episodes of Wooden burglarizing different, single units. Justice Kagan then reviewed SCOTUS precedent that had described sequences of events, such as the case of a robbery followed by a murder and the case of a woman hit and then strangled by her boyfriend, noting that such cases had described the collection of events as single “occasions.”
The majority also pointed out that the prosecution erred in collapsing two separate statutory conditions, noting that the ACCA kicks in only if both the offender had been convicted of three separate felonies and if those three felonies were committed on “occasions different from one another.” If sequentiality was sufficient, they reasoned, there would be no need for the second requirement in most instances, given that “people seldom commit—indeed, seldom can commit—multiple ACCA offenses at the exact same time” (emphasis added). The majority was further convinced (unlike Justice Barrett, in her concurring opinion) by the fact that the second requirement was added to the ACCA as a result of Petty, as described above.
The Supreme Court thus vacated the judgment. But since the Solicitor General, in Petty, had argued that the ACCA should not apply to multiple convictions coming from a single criminal episode and pointed out references in congressional reports indicating that the ACCA was designed for habitual or “revolving-door” offenders, the Court remanded the case back to the Sixth Circuit for further consideration.
Rule of Lenity
In a concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch found the multi-factor approach problematic and of little guidance. He gave the example of a defendant who sold drugs to an undercover police officer at the same street corner twice in an hour. Would an hour be a sufficient gap in time for the sales to constitute two different offenses? The answer was not clear for the Justice. And in Wooden’s case, what exactly determined whether the storage units were one or multiple locations?
Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Sotomayor, suggested resorting to the rule of lenity instead. According to this rule, when a federal criminal statute is “grievously ambiguous” and when other canons of statutory interpretation give no clear answer as to its meaning, the statute should be interpreted in the defendant’s favor.
The ACCA and Its Permanent Review
The ACCA has been subject to scrutiny by the Supreme Court and its scope of application has been reduced in the last decade.
In Johnson v. United States, decided in 2015, the Court held that the ACCA’s definition of “violent felonies” as felonies that involved “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” violated the constitutional guarantee of due-process for being “unconstitutionally vague.” There was no clear guide either on how to estimate the risk posed by a crime or on how much risk it would take for a crime to qualify as a violent felony.
In the 2020 opinion of Shular v. United States, the SCOTUS held that only the statutory definition of a prior offense was to be evaluated when deciding if a person’s prior conviction qualified for ACCA enhancement. Courts could not, by contract, turn to look at the facts underlying the previous convictions. This was called a “categorical approach.”
In 2021, the Supreme Court held in Borden v. United States that a criminal offense that required only a mens rea of “recklessness” could not count as a “violent felony” under the ACCA.
Now, the Supreme Court’s latest opinion in Wooden hasfurther curtailed the scope of the ACCA.
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