By Emily Tegley.
When does a single criminal offense end and another begin? The Supreme Court addressed this issue in the recent opinion Wooden v. United States.
THE ARMED CAREER CRIMINAL ACT
In 1984, Congress passed the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) to address repeat offenders. The ACCA applies to individuals who have three or more prior convictions for: (1) a violent felony; and/or (2) a serious drug offense. To be sentenced under the ACCA, the offenses must have been “committed on occasions different from one another.” If the ACCA applies, then the individual faces a minimum of fifteen years in prison.
WOODEN AND THE ARMED CAREER CRIMINAL ACT
In 1997, William Dale Wooden and three other individuals entered a storage facility in Dalton, Georgia. The individuals gained access to and stole from ten separate storage units by breaking through the drywall between them. Wooden was charged with ten counts of burglary, convicted, and ultimately sentenced to eight years for each conviction, running concurrently.
Seventeen years later, law enforcement found guns inside Wooden’s home and arrested him for possessing a firearm. Wooden was then charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Because burglary is considered a violent offense, Wooden’s ten prior burglary convictions satisfied the first ACCA requirement. However, at Wooden’s sentencing hearing, the parties argued over whether Wooden’s convictions were committed on separate occasions. Wooden argued burglarizing the ten separate storage units only constituted a “single occasion” rather than separate events. In contrast, the Government argued that each time Wooden broke into another unit in the storage facility was a “new ‘occasion’ of criminal activity.” Persuaded by the Government’s argument, the District Court sentenced Wooden to 188 months in prison.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed Wooden’s sentence, stating “Wooden could not be in two (let alone ten) of [the storage units] at once.” Wooden petitioned the Supreme Court pro se (on his own behalf, or, without the assistance of counsel) and the Supreme Court granted Wooden’s petition for review.
THE SUPREME COURT’S REASONING
In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court considered “whether Wooden committed his crimes on a single occasion or on ten separate ones.” The Supreme Court rejected the Government’s argument that an “occasion ends at the discrete moment when an offense’s elements are established.” In contrast, the Court focused on the common meaning of the word “occasion” and compared a single criminal act to attending a wedding, stating: “the occasion of a wedding may include a ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner, and dancing. Those activities need not—and often do not—occur simultaneously; yet they nevertheless compose one occasion. The same is true for sequential criminal offenses.”
Furthermore, the Court pointed out that the ACCA requires three or more prior violent felony convictions and that these felonies be committed on different occasions. The Court stated that if the Government’s argument was adopted, then the two requirements would be superfluous and could “make someone a career criminal in the space of a minute.”
The Court offered multiple factors that may be useful in determining whether multiple criminal offenses occurred on one occasion, including timing, proximity of location, and similarity of the offenses. Applying these factors to Wooden’s case, the Court determined Wooden’s criminal acts did not occur on ten separate occasions, noting the intertwined burglaries were identical, occurred on a single night, and at a single location.
Lastly, the Court noted Congress amended the ACCA and added the occasion requirement after an individual was convicted of six counts of robbery from a single criminal occasion. The Court reasoned that this was evidence Congress did not intend for the ACCA to apply to offenders convicted with multiple charges arising from one occasion.
INCREASING THE SCOPE OF THE ACCA?
Wooden was decided within the broader context of an ongoing debate over sentencing enhancements contributing to mass incarceration. Some argue that sentencing enhancements, including the ACCA, are not broad enough. There are currently two bills pending in the United States Congress: one in the House, and the other in the Senate, both titled the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act. The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act would amend the ACCA by eliminating language requiring the three prior felonies be either “violent felonies” or “serious drug offenses.” In contrast, the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act would only require the underlying offenses be “serious felonies.” Notably, a “serious felony” is defined as any offense punishable by at least ten years in prison. Thus, while Wooden limited the scope of the ACCA, Congress could potentially broaden the scope of the ACCA by enacting the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act or other legislation.
Because the Wooden facts are so irregular, the decision may not have far-reaching consequences on sentencing under the ACCA. For example, the Supreme Court declined to review a 2017 Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, United States v. Longoria, where a defendant was charged under the ACCA after being convicted of three drug-related offenses that took place over nine days. Thus, while one night may constitute one occasion, nine days likely does not.
Under the ACCA, Wooden received a nearly sixteen-year prison sentence. On remand, the maximum sentence Wooden can receive is ten years. Furthermore, if the Probation Office recommends a similar sentence on remand that it recommended when the Government was not seeking an enhancement under the ACCA, Wooden may only spend around two years in prison. Therefore, even though Wooden may be a limited decision, it certainly has a significant impact on William Dale Wooden’s life.