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SCOTUS Rejects Government’s Interpretation of the ACCA’s ‘Occasions Clause’ That Would Make It Possible to Become ‘a Career Criminal in the Space of a Minute’

by Richard Resch

In a 9-0 opinion delivered by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court of the United States held that defendant’s 10 burglary convictions for burglarizing 10 separate storage units all located within the same building constituted a single “occasion,” not 10, for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), and thus, defendant’s 10 convictions alone do not trigger the sentence enhancement under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1) for specified felonies “committed on occasions different from one another.”

In 1997, William Dale Wooden and three accomplices illegally entered a storage facility building in Dalton, Georgia. They proceeded to break into several separate storage units within the building by “crushing the interior drywall” between each of the units and stole items from a total of 10 individual units.

Prosecutors charged Wooden with 10 counts of burglary, though in a single indictment as required by Ga. Code Ann. § 16-1-7(b). He pleaded guilty to all 10 counts, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison for each conviction, with all of the terms to run concurrently.  

In November 2014, a police officer spotted several firearms in Wooden’s Tennessee home. Knowing that he was a felon, the officer arrested him, and a jury subsequently convicted him of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).

Ordinarily, the maximum sentence for a violation of that statute is 10 years in prison. See § 924(a)(2). However, the ACCA mandates a minimum 15-year sentence if the defendant has three prior convictions for “violent felon[ies]” or “serious drug offense[s]” that were “committed on occasions different from one another.” § 924(e)(1). Without the ACCA enhancement, the Probation Office recommended a sentence of 21 to 27 months, but with the enhancement, the minimum sentence is approximately 13 years longer.

At the sentencing hearing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Wooden argued that his prior convictions for breaking into the 10 storage units constituted a single “occasion,” and thus, the ACCA-sentence enhancement wasn’t triggered. The Government countered that each entry into a separate storage unit constituted a separate “occasion” of criminal activity, so his 10 convictions were “committed on occasions different from one another,” thereby triggering the sentence enhancement.

The District Court sided with the Government’s position and sentenced Wooden to 188 months in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the sequential nature of the crimes from unit to unit resulted in them being “committed on occasions different from one another.”

Because of a split among the Circuits on the meaning of ACCA’s “occasions” clause, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split in authority, framing the question before it as follows: “whether Wooden committed his crimes on a single occasion or ten separate ones.”

The Court flatly rejected the Government’s position. It reasoned that the everyday meaning and usage of the word “occasion” refutes the “Government’s single-minded focus on whether a crime’s elements were established at a discrete moment in time.” In addition, the Court cited “ACA’s history and purpose” as supporting its determination.

The Court explained that an ordinary person would describe Wooden’s criminal conduct as follows: “On one occasion, Wooden burglarized ten units in a storage facility.” No one, the Court continued, would say that “[o]n ten occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.” Using language in its ordinary manner, an ordinary person would “group his entries into the storage units, even though not simultaneous, all together—as happening on a single occasion, rather than on ten ‘occasions different from one another,’” the Court stated. § 924(e)(1).

If the Government’s interpretation were adopted, the “two separate statutory conditions” necessary for triggering the sentence enhancement would effectively be collapsed into a single condition, according to the Court. It explained that under the Government’s interpretation the three-offense requirement and the three-occasion requirement “will generally boil down to the same thing: When an offender’s criminal history meets the three-offense demand, it will also meet the three-occasion one.” The reason for that, the Court explained, “is because people seldom commit—indeed, seldom can commit—multiple ACCA offenses at the exact same time.” For example, with burglary, it’s physically impossible for a person to enter multiple buildings simultaneously; instead, crimes of that type occur one at a time, even if several occur over a short period of time. Under the Government’s interpretation, which focuses on the exact timing of events, a person can become “a career criminal in the space of a minute,” the Court stated, illustrating the absurdity of the Government’s position.

The Court stated that the statutory history and purpose also support its view of the ACCA’s occasions clause, noting that for the first four years of the ACCA the focus for triggering sentence enhancement was only on offenses, not occasions. The Court stated that “Congress added the occasions clause only after a court applied ACCA to an offender much like Wooden—a person convicted of multiple counts of robbery arising from a single criminal episode.” See United States v. Petty, 798 F.2d 1157 (8th Cir. 1986).

In that case, Petty and three accomplices entered a restaurant brandishing guns and ordered everyone to the floor while the gunmen took money and valuables from the prostrate victims located throughout the establishment. Petty was convicted of six counts of robbery, one count for each of the six victims whose property he had taken, and served concurrent five-year sentences. Years later, he was caught possessing a firearm, and the Government sought the ACCA sentence enhancement, arguing that his six robbery convictions triggered it. The District Court agreed and sentenced him applying the sentence enhancement, but the Eighth Circuit would eventually find in Petty’s favor. Critically, the Supreme Court explained that afterwards “Congress amended ACCA to prevent future Pettys from being sentenced as career criminals.” It did so by adding the occasions clause.

The Court likened Wooden’s conduct with that of Petty’s, noting the similarities between the series of events in the two cases. It explained that “Wooden did not become a career criminal when he moved from the second storage unit to the third, as Petty did not when he moved from the second to the third of the restaurant’s patrons.” Thus, the Court held that Wooden’s 10 “burglary convictions were for offenses committed on a single occasion,” so they count only once for purposes of the ACCA.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Wooden v. United States, 212 L. Ed. 2d 187 (2022).

Writer’s note: Sotomayor, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Gorsuch each wrote a concurring opinion. 

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