Facts of the Case
In 1997, William Wooden broke into a mini-storage facility in Georgia and stole from 10 different units, resulting in 10 counts of burglary, to which he pled guilty. Then, in 2014, a plainclothes officer went to Wooden’s home, where he witnessed Wooden in possession of a rifle. Wooden was arrested and charged in state court with being a felon in possession of a firearm, but the case was dismissed when the district attorney noted that there was no probable cause for Wooden’s arrest. Wooden was subsequently charged by federal indictment with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and 924(e). After Wooden was found guilty, the district court found during his sentencing hearing that Wooden qualified as an armed career criminal under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), based on his conviction for the 10 counts of burglary, and sentenced him to 15 years’ imprisonment accordingly. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that Wooden’s prior burglaries were separate from each other, despite occurring as part of a single criminal spree.
Are offenses committed as part of a single criminal spree but sequentially in time “committed on occasions different from one another” for purposes of a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act?
Offenses committed as part of a single criminal episode did not occur on different “occasions” and thus count as only one offense for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Justice Elena Kagan authored the majority opinion that was unanimous in the judgment to reverse the lower court.
The ordinary meaning of the word “occasion” does not require occurrence at precisely one moment in time. For example, an ordinary person would describe Wooden as burglarizing ten units “on one occasion” but would not say “on ten occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.” And indeed “Wooden committed his burglaries on a single night, in a single uninterrupted course of conduct.” The history of the ACCA confirms this understanding, as Congress added an “occasions clause,” which requires that prior crimes occur on “occasions different from one another.” This interpretation is also consistent with the purpose of the ACCA, which is to address the “special danger” posed by the “armed career criminal”—a concern not presented by the situation of a single criminal episode.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a concurrence noting that on the facts, she agreed with the majority that Wooden’s prior convictions did not take place on “occasions different from one another” but also with Justice Neil Gorsuch’s point that the rule of lenity provides an independent basis for ruling in favor of a defendant in a closer case.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored a concurrence explaining why the rule of lenity has played a limited role in the Court’s criminal case law and why the presumption of mens rea addresses Justice Gorsuch’s concern about fair notice.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, concurred in part and concurred in the judgment. Justice Barrett agreed with the majority about the ordinary meaning of the word “occasion” but disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the statutory history.
Justice Gorsuch authored an opinion concurring in the judgment, which Justice Sotomayor joined in part. Justice Gorsuch argued that the rule of lenity provides a definitive rule of decision in these types of cases, in contrast to a list of factors to consider, which could lead to inconsistent outcomes in cases where the facts are less clear.