Supreme Court Explains "Occasions Clause" case: Wooden
On March 7, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Wooden v. United States, case number 20-5279 (2022). At issue in the Wooden case was how to interpret a particular phrase in the ACCA penalty clause found at 18 U.S.C. 924(e). Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a good decision today.
We are reproducing the entire syllabus (introduction) directly from the Wooden decision below.
The Wooden Syllabus
A jury convicted William Dale Wooden of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U. S. C. Sec. 922(g). The Government asked the District Court to sentence Wooden under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). ACCA mandates a 15-year minimum penalty for Sec. 922(g)offenders with at least three prior convictions for specified felonies “committed on occasions different from one another.” Sect. 924(e)(1). Wooden’s relevant criminal record included ten burglary convictions arising out of a single criminal episode in 1997, during which Wooden had unlawfully entered a one-building storage facility and stolen items from ten different storage units. Prosecutors indicted Wooden on ten counts of burglary—one for each storage unit—and Wooden pleaded guilty to all counts. Years later, at Wooden’s sentencing hearing on his Sec. 922(g) conviction, the District Court applied ACCA’s penalty enhancement in accordance with the Government’s view that Wooden had commenced a new “occasion” of criminal activity each time he left one storage unit and entered another. The resulting sentence was almost sixteen years, much higher than the statutory maximum for Wooden’s crime absent such an enhancement. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that ACCA’s occasions clause is satisfied whenever crimes take place at different moments in time—that is, sequentially rather than simultaneously.
HELD: Wooden’s ten burglary offenses arising from a single criminal episode did not occur on different “occasions” and thus count as only one prior conviction for purposes of ACCA. Pp. 4–15.
(a) Wooden’s successive burglaries occurred on one “occasion” under a natural construction of that term. An ordinary person using language in its normal way would describe Wooden’s entries into the storage units as happening on a single occasion, rather than on ten “occasions different from one another.” Sec. 924(e)(1). The Government’s contention that an “occasion” ends at the discrete moment when an offense’s elements are established contravenes the ordinary usage of the word. An occasion may itself encompass multiple, temporally distinct activities. For example, 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. Indeed, the Court has often used the word “occasion” to encompass multiple, temporally discrete offenses. See, e.g., United States v. Bryant, 579 U. S. 140, 151. The Government’s contrary view—that each sequential offense forms its own “occasion”—can make someone a career offender in the space of a minute. But that view goes far toward collapsing ACCA’s two separate statutory conditions for imposing an enhanced penalty on a Sec. 922(g) offender. ACCA’s enhancement kicks in only if (1) the offender has three previous convictions for specified felonies; and (2) those predicate felonies were committed on “occasions different from one another.” Sec. 924(e)(1). The Government’s approach would largely collapse the two conditions and give ACCA’s three-occasions requirement no work to do. Pp. 5–7.
(b) Given what “occasion” ordinarily means, whether criminal activities occurred on one occasion or different occasions requires a multi-factored inquiry that may depend on a range of circumstances, including timing, location, and the character and relationship of the offenses. For the most part, the determination will be straightforward and intuitive. In many cases, a single factor—especially of time or place—candecisively differentiate occasions. In hard cases, the inquiry may involve keeping an eye on ACCA’s history and purpose. Here, every relevant consideration shows that Wooden burglarized ten storage units on a single occasion. Indeed it was because the burglaries “ar[ose] from the same conduct” that Georgia law required the prosecutor to charge all ten in a single indictment. Ga. Code Ann. 16–1–7(b). Pp. 8–9.
(c) Statutory history and purpose as the Court’s conclusion that Wooden is not a career offender. Congress added the occasions clause only after a court applied ACCA’s enhancement to Samuel Petty—an offender who, much like Wooden, was convicted of multiple counts of robbery for one night in one restaurant. See United States v. Petty, 798 F.2d 1157. Petty sought review in this Court, and the Solicitor General confessed error, stating that ACCA should not be construed to reach multiple felony convictions arising out of a single criminal episode. Shortly thereafter, Congress amended ACCA to require that the requisite offenses occur on “occasions different from one another.” Minor and Technical Criminal Law Amendments Act of 1988, Sec. 7056, 102Stat. 4402. That statutory change, rejecting the original outcome in Petty in light of the Solicitor General’s confession of error, is at odds with the Government’s current view of the occasions clause. The Government attempts to distinguish the facts of Petty, but nothing about the Solicitor General’s confession of error, or Congress’s amendment of ACCA, suggests any concern for whether an offender’s crimes were committed simultaneously or sequentially. Instead, each was based on another idea—that a person who has robbed a restaurant, and done nothing else, is not a career offender. The history of the occasions clause thus aligns with what this Court has always recognized asACCA’s purpose: to address the “special danger” posed by the eponymous “armed career criminal.” Begay v. United States, 553 U. S. 137, 146. Wooden’s burglary of a single storage facility does not suggest that kind of danger, any more than Petty’s robbery of a single restaurant did. Pp. 10–14.
945 F. 3d 498, reversed.
KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined, and in which THOMAS, ALITO, and BARRETT, JJ., joined as to all but Part II–B. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion. KAVANAUGH, J., filed a concurring opinion. BARRETT, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which SOTOMAYOR, J., joinedas to Parts II, III, and IV.
What does the Wooden Case Mean?
The Wooden case was all about how to interpret the requirement that 3 prior felony convictions occurred on different “occasions” before imposing an enhanced penalty under Section 924(e). The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision which had used a hyper-technical meaning of “occasion” to apply the ACCA enhancement to more people.
Now, a different “occasion” means a different occasion. This simple interpretive change means that there are people serving mandatory minimum 15-year ACCA sentences that they would not receive today post-Wooden.