When Should Crimes Be Combined Under the Armed Career Criminal Act?The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is a federal law, passed in 1984, that increases the sentences for felons who commit crimes with firearms if they have three or more violent felony convictions or serious drug offenses. The Act provides that a defendant who meets the definitions under the Act receives a 15-year minimum prison sentence instead of the maximum 10-year prison sentence. Convicted defendants can also be sentenced to life imprisonment under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Wooden vs. the United States, made a ruling on the applicability of the Armed Career Criminal Act on March 7, 2022. The decision of the Court, written by Justice Kagan, was unanimous. The Court held that a defendant who stole from 10 different storage units and was charged with 10 burglary offenses should only be considered as having one (and not 10) prior convictions – because the “ten burglary offenses arising from a single criminal episode did not occur on different “occasions.” Thus, they ruled, in applying the ACCA, Wooden’s burglary would only count as one conviction.

The decision of the US Supreme Court reversed a decision of the lower courts. Several of the justices wrote or joined concurring opinions.

The facts of US Supreme Court Case – Wooden v. United States

According to SCOTUS blog, the defendant, Wooden, broke into a storage facility and stole from 10 separate storage units. He pleaded guilty to 10 separate felonies and served an eight-year sentence in Georgia state prison. Decades later, an unknown person knocked on his door and asked to speak to Wooden’s wife. Wooden invited the stranger inside while he went to get his wife.

The stranger was actually a plain-clothes police officer who was aware of Wooden’s criminal background. The officer arrested Wooden when he stepped inside the home and saw a firearm. He arrested Wooden because felons are not permitted to possess firearms. However, the government did more than seek the maximum 10-year sentence for felony firearm possession. They sought to impose the mandatory 15-year minimum sentence, claiming Wooden’s 10 prior burglary offenses were 10 separate convictions under the Armed Career Criminal Act – and thus met the three-conviction threshold for prosecution.

The courts were then asked to rule whether the 10 convictions occurred on different “occasions,” or were a part of one overall “occasion.”  Wooden argued that the 10 convictions stemmed from one occasion and that the ACCA should not apply. The US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in favor of the government and against Wooden. They reasoned that crimes were committed on separate “occasions,” because Wooden couldn’t be in two or more storage units at the same time.

Some courts had held that crimes are “committed on different ‘occasions’ for ACCA purposes when they are committed ‘successively rather than simultaneously,’ as in United States v. Carter, an 11th Circuit case.” Other circuit courts used a deeper review. They “looked beyond temporality and instead considered whether the crimes were committed under sufficiently different circumstances.”

The 2nd Circuit, for instance, “distinguish[ed] between the defendant who simply commits several offenses in a connected chain of events and the defendant who … commits multiple crimes separated by substantial effort and reflection.”

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve this split.

Defining an “occasion” in front of the Supreme Court

Per SCOTUS blog:

[Wooden] asserts that “[a]s used in ordinary speech,” events occur on the same “occasion” “when they arise from or exploit the same circumstances.” For instance, when you go to the mall and try on shoes, browse for furniture, and buy some ice cream, such an outing would “naturally be described, if part of a continuous trip to the mall, as having taken place on the ‘same occasion.’” Moreover, says Wooden, the legislative history shows that Congress was targeting the “habitual offender” when passing ACCA, as the statute was designed to cover those “who made a career of exploiting distinct criminal opportunities.”

The government argued the opposite – that “an ‘occasion’ is an occurrence, happening, or incident, that takes place at a particular point in time [and] that the relevant ‘occasion’ for ACCA purposes is the point in time when each offense is ‘committed.’” Further, the government argued that it’s not the Court’s duty to rewrite a criminal statute “so that it covers only what the Court thinks is necessary to achieve what it thinks Congress really intended.”

The Supreme Court opinion

The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Wooden, determining the 10 burglaries occurred during one occasion and not 10 separate ones. “Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan explained that both the ‘ordinary meaning’ of ‘occasion,’ the structure of ACCA, and the occasion clause’s history dictate this result.”

In her review of the ordinary meaning of the word “occasion,” Justice Kagan gave the example that a person who explained what happened would say: “’On one occasion, Wooden burglarized ten units in a storage facility.’ A person would not say: ’On ten occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.’”

Justice Kagan then explained why the ACCA statute also supports Wooden’s broad definition of “occasion,” by examining the wording of the statute and the statute’s history.

Justice Gorsuch wrote that the “rule of lenity” – the principle that the judicial system should resolve statutory ambiguities in favor of criminal defendants favored the defendant Wooden. Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the rule of lenity only applies in cases of “grievous ambiguity.” Kavanaugh argued that most statutes can be clearly resolved. Justice Gorsuch disagreed with Justice Kavanaugh.

The issue may be revisited – depending on the facts of other cases – based on Justice Kagan’s reasoning and the concurring opinions of the other Justices Gorsuch (joined mostly by Justice Sotomayor) and Justice Kavanaugh.

At Carey Law Office, our criminal defense lawyer asserts every possible defense available, including violations of your Constitutional rights. We review every word of the criminal statute to show when a statute doesn’t apply to your case, or that there is a reasonable doubt about whether it applies. We represent clients in Crofton, Bowie, and Calvert County. If you’ve been arrested for or charged with any crime, call our experienced Bowie and Crofton defense lawyer at 301-464-2500 or use our contact form to schedule a free consultation.