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Armed Career Criminal Act – What is One Offense?

On March 7, 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in William Dale Wooden v. United States, holding that when a judge decides whether multiple felonies may be considered as part of one crime under the Armed Career Criminal Act, the judge must undertake a multi-factored inquiry of the timing, location, relationship and character of the felonies.

In Wooden’s case, this inquiry led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ten burglaries “counted” as one offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), sparing Mr. Wooden from a mandatory minimum fifteen-year sentence enhancement the U.S. Sixth Circuit in Georgia held proper.

As the reader of this website may be aware, the ACCA (18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1)) functions similar to California Three Strikes Act (California Penal Code §§ 667(b) – (i) and 1170.12).  It calls for a mandatory fifteen-year minimum federal prison sentence for defendants who have been convicted of three of more prior qualifying felonies “committed on occasions different from each other.”
Brief Synopsis: The federal Armed Career Criminal Act provides enhanced sentences for a person who has a certain number of prior convictions, punishing recidivism.  The question in the following case was whether a person commits one crime by breaking into one storage unit and then breaking down the wall in that unit to burglarize another unit, and then another, and then another.  It is one crime or multiple crimes?  The U.S. Supreme Court decided it was one crime.        
In 1997, Mr. Wooden pleaded guilty to ten counts of burglary, one for each of the adjacent storage units he had broken into one night in a single building storage facility.  More than a decade later, he was convicted in federal court of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  The government asked the district court judge to sentence Wooden under the ACCA.

The district court agreed, finding 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 just being a felon in possession of a firearm without such an enhancement. 

Wooden appealed the sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the district court.  The Sixth Circuit reasoned that the ACCA’s occasions clause is satisfied whenever crimes take place at different moments in time – that is sequentially, rather than simultaneously. 

Wooden then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his ten burglaries should be counted as just one offense, kind of a “cheaper by the dozen” argument, because all ten were part of one spree, consecutive to each other with no break, at the same location, using the same modus operandi and involving similar victims.

The U.S. Supreme Court explained that “[a]n 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.”  It cited to People v. Bryant (2016) 579 U.S. 140, 151, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court has previously used the word “occasion” to encompass multiple, temporarily discreet offenses.

Justice Elena Kagan explained further, “[c]onsider first how an ordinary person (a reporter; a police officer; yes, even a lawyer) might describe Wooden’s 10 burglaries – and how she would not.  The observer might say ‘On one occasion, Wooden burglarized 10 units in a storage facility.  By contrast, she would never say: ‘On 10 occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.” 

Justice Kagan went on to explain how a judge should approach this issue.  Courts should consider “a range of circumstances” in deciding whether crimes took place on a single occasion.  They include whether the crimes took place close in time, whether they were part of an uninterrupted course of conduct and whether they took place in the same place.  All these factors counted in Mr. Wooden’s favor, she explained.

Justice Neil Gorsuch was not in agreement with Kagan, pointing out that her reasoning overlooked some important facts distinguishing each burglary from the other.  For example, each burglary infringed on a different person’s property and Mr. Wooden had to break through a new wall to enter each different storage unit.  Instead, Gorsuch suggested that judges apply the rule of lenity (citing Harrison v. Vose (1850) 50 U.S. 372, 378 (“[i]n the construction of a penal code statute, it is well settled . . . that all reasonable doubts concerning the meaning ought to operate in favor of [the defendant]”).

The citation for the United States Supreme Court ruling discussed above is William Dale Wooden v. United States (2022) 595 U.S. ___.”

For more information about sentencing under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, please click on the following articles:
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