Wooden v. U.S.: Multiple convictions from single criminal episode do not trigger enhancement under ACCA
Multiple convictions arising from a single criminal episode do not trigger enhanced penalties under the Armed Career Criminal Act because the convictions did not occur on separate “occasions,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 7 in Wooden v. United States.
In 1997, William Wooden burglarized 10 units in a single storage facility by cutting through interior drywall and moving from unit to unit. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 separate burglary charges for this incident.
Wooden was charged in the instant case with being a felon-in-possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g).
Sec. 924(e)(1) of ACCA mandates an enhanced 15-year minimum prison sentence when the defendant has three or more prior convictions for violent felonies like burglary “committed on occasions different from one another.”
The district court and Sixth Circuit ruled Wooden was subject to this enhancement because the sequential nature of his crimes – moving from one unit to the next – meant that the crimes were committed on different occasions.
The Supreme Court reversed, in an opinion joined, at least in part, by all justices.
“The ordinary meaning of the word ‘occasion’ – essentially an episode or event – refutes the Government’s single minded focus on whether a crime’s elements were established at a discrete moment in time,” the Court said.
“The origin of the word ‘occasions’ confirms that multiple crimes may occur on one occasion even if not at the same moment,” the Court said.
“Wooden’s night of crime is a perfect case in point”, the Court said. “His one-after-another-after-another burglary of ten units in a single storage facility occurred on one ‘occasion’ under a natural construction of that term and consistent with the reason it became part of ACCA.”
The word occasion “commonly refers to an event, occurrence, happening, or episode,” the Court said. “And such an event, occurrence, happening, or episode – which is simply to say, such an occasion – may itself encompass multiple, temporally distinct activities.”
“The occasion of a wedding, for example, often includes a ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner, and dancing,” the Court said.
Whether prior convictions occurred on multiple “occasions” is a “multi-factored” inquiry, the Court said.
“Time of course matters, though not in the split-second, elements-based way the Government proposes,” the Court said.
“Offenses 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,” the Court explained.
“The further away crimes take place, the less likely they are components of the same criminal event,” the Court said.
“The more similar or intertwined the conduct giving rise to the offenses – the more, for example, they share a common scheme or purpose – the more apt they are to compose one occasion,” the Court said.
The history and purpose of ACCA’s “occasions” clause was to ensure that only a particular set of repeat offenders received the strictest punishment, the Court said.
Wooden’s burglary of the storage facility did not make him the repeat offender ACCA was intended to punish, the Court said. “Wooden did not become a career criminal when he moved from the second storage unit to the third”.
“In enacting the occasions clause, Congress made certain that crimes like [these], taken alone, would not subject a person to a 15-year minimum sentence for illegally possessing a gun,” the Court concluded.
Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Sotomayor, wrote separately that the rule of lenity should be used to deal with ambiguous statutes, such as the occasions clause.
Lenity “is about protecting an indispensable part of the rule of law” – “the promise” that individuals “can suffer penalties only for violating standing rules announced in advance,” Gorsuch said.
Lenity “seeks to ensure people are never punished for violating just-so rules concocted after the fact, or rules with no more claim to democratic provenance than a judge’s surmise about legislative intentions,” Gorsuch said.
When doubts over ACCA’s application arise, “they should be resolved in favor of liberty,” Gorsuch concluded.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately to largely reject Justice Gorsuch’s views on the rule of lenity.
But Kavanaugh said federal criminal statutes require fair notice, and proof by the Government of mens rea.
When a “fair notice problem arises, one solution where appropriate could be to require proof that the defendant was aware that his conduct was unlawful,” Kavanaugh said. “Alternatively, another solution could be to allow a mistake-of-law defense in certain circumstances – consistent with the longstanding legal principle that an act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty.”