Are crimes that occur in sequence during a criminal spree “committed on occasions different from one another” under the Armed Criminal Career Act?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine how sentencing courts should interpret the “occasions” provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The ACCA imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for defendants who have three or more prior convictions for a serious felony or drug offense occurring on separate occasions. Petitioner William Dale Wooden (“Wooden”) argues that multiple offenses arising from the same criminal opportunity cannot serve as more than one “occasion” under the ACCA. Wooden maintains that his interpretation is consistent with the ACCA’s legislative history and Congressional record. Respondent United States counters that the focus of a sentencing court’s “different occasions” analysis should decide whether the crimes occurred at different times. The United States maintains that its position provides sentencing courts with a straightforward and uniform approach. This case has significant implications for criminal sentencing, recidivism, and the notion of what constitutes a “career” criminal.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether offenses that were committed as part of a single criminal spree, but sequentially in time, were “committed on occasions different from one another” for purposes of a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
While searching for a wanted fugitive, police asked Wooden if they could enter his home. United States v. Wooden at 500. According to the police, Wooden gave them permission to enter. Id. While in his home, police observed Wooden pick up a firearm. Id. One of the officers was aware that Wooden was a convicted felon and that he could not legally possess a firearm. Id. The police arrested Wooden and later discovered two additional guns after further searching his home and person. Id. Wooden was subsequently charged with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Id. A jury convicted Wooden of the felon-in-possession charge. Id.
The United States Probation Office identified Wooden as subject to the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). Id. The ACCA enhances a sentence to a term of 15 years to life if the defendant has at least three prior convictions. Id. at 504. Under the ACCA, qualifying convictions include violent felonies committed on different occasions. Id. at 500. Wooden’s criminal history included a 1989 Georgia aggravated assault conviction and ten 1997 burglary convictions. Id. at 500–01. The ten burglary convictions were the result of Wooden entering ten different storage units. Id. at 505.
Wooden objected to the sentence enhancement on two grounds. Id. at 501. First, he argued that neither the aggravated assault nor the burglaries were violent felonies under the ACCA. Id. Second, he contended that the ten 1997 burglary convictions all stemmed from a single criminal episode and therefore did not qualify as more than one “occasion.” Id. The district court rejected Wooden’s claims and agreed to an enhanced sentence under the ACCA. Id.
Reviewing the claims de novo, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit focused on how the “occasions” provision should be read. Id. at 501, 504–06. The Sixth Circuit noted that the text of the ACCA provided little guidance on how courts ought to interpret the relevant phrase. Id. at 504. The Sixth Circuit next turned to its own prior decisions for direction. Id. Using the three indicia described in United States v. Hill, the Sixth Circuit held that the ten 1997 burglaries constituted ten separate “occasions” because they occurred sequentially at different times and in different locations. Id. at 505–06. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit determined that Wooden could not have been in multiple storage units at the same time. Id. at 505. The Sixth Circuit also reasoned that it was possible for Wooden to have ended the night’s criminal activity after the first of ten burglaries. Id. at 505. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed Wooden’s enhanced sentence. Id. at 506.
HOW EXPANSIVE A SCOPE SHOULD BE GIVEN TO THE PHRASE “OCCASIONS”?
Petitioner Wooden contends that under the ACCA’s sentencing enhancement a defendant must commit felonies under different circumstances for courts to consider them unique. Brief for Petitioner at 12. Wooden argues that this reading is consistent with the plain language of the statute, as well as the commonplace dictionary definition of the term “occasion.” Id. at 13. Wooden also asserts that other federal statutes do not conflate “occasion” with a single point in time, but rather use it to represent activities that arise from a common set of circumstances. Id. at 14. For example, Wooden notes that the recidivism or repeat-offender enhancement under 18 U.S.C. §3559(c)(1)(A) contemplates all convictions made from a single indictment on the same day. Id. at 14–15. Wooden claims that courts must weigh the totality of the circumstances in each case to determine whether an offender committed crimes on different occasions. Id. at 17. Wooden urges against courts applying catch-all per se rules about what constitutes an “occasion.” Id. Hence, Wooden contends that because he burglarized one combined storage structure on one specific evening, he committed all the crimes on a single occasion. Id. at 25–26.
Respondent United States counters that Wooden’s definition of “occasion” is too broad, and that instead offenders commit crimes on different “occasions” if they commit their crimes in sequence at different times. Brief for Respondent at 12. In contrast with Wooden’s fact-dependent approach, the United States urges that crimes occur on different occasions when the criminal conduct required to complete the listed elements of each crime occurs at different times. Id. at 12–13. In support of its position, the United States cites case law (e.g., United States v. Yashar) suggesting that most courts find that offenders complete crimes when they satisfy the crime’s elements. Id. at 15. Consequently, the United States argues that once the perpetrator commits the crime’s discrete elements, any subsequent criminal activity represents a distinct “occasion.” Id. The United States further argues that this more limited definition of “occasion” is consistent with the word’s dictionary meaning of a “particular time,” and consistent with the Supreme Court’s “plain meaning” application of the term in Coleman v. Tollefson. Id. at 13. Additionally, the United States posits that most lower courts have uniformly recognized the Coleman approach of distinguishing crimes by different occasions under the ACCA. Id. at 18. Therefore, the United States maintains that because Wooden did not complete all ten burglaries simultaneously, he necessarily committed those crimes on different occasions. Id. at 12.
DO THE HISTORY AND PURPOSE OF THE ARMED CAREER CRIMINAL ACT SUPPORT A SPECIFIC INTERPRETATION OF “OCCASIONS”?
Wooden contends that the ACCA’s structure, history, and purpose illustrate Congressional intent to specifically target “career” criminals, therefore encouraging a less restrictive interpretation of “occasion.” Brief for Petitioner at 18. Wooden posits that the ACCA adopts the separate occasions language from the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 (“OCCA”), which accords judges discretion to impose a more severe sentence for “dangerous special offenders” who have committed more than two offenses on separate occasions. Id. at 19. Wooden argues that American Bar Association (“ABA”), which influenced the OCCA, wanted to ensure that the penalty would only target habitual offenders, not just defendants prosecuted multiple times for the same temporally committed offense. Id. Moreover, Wooden contends that Congress wanted the ACCA to target repeat, “career” criminals with enhanced sentences. Id. at 20. Wooden identifies statements made by Congressional leaders arguing that most state laws did not sufficiently capture and prevent “career” criminals. Id. at 21. Wooden also notes that in 1988 Congress specifically revised and added the “occasions” language to the ACCA, which at first did not differentiate between defendants who committed prior offenses separately and those who committed them simultaneously. Id. Wooden elaborates that Congress amended the statute only after the Eighth Circuit in United States v. Petty applied the sentencing enhancement to a defendant who had a prior multi-count conviction for six robberies committed simultaneously. Id. at 25. Consequently, Wooden articulates that because he committed all ten burglaries in one evening, he is the exact type of offender—like the defendant in Petty—who Congress meant to exclude from the sentencing enhancement by amending the ACCA. Id. at 25–26. Additionally, Wooden expounds that the rule of lenity mandates resolving any ambiguities in the text or history of the ACCA in his favor. Id. at 45.
The United States counters that the ACCA’s goal to target “career” criminals does not offer definitive guidance on how to interpret whether criminals committed offenses on different occasions. Brief for Respondent at 35. The United States further argues that the 1988 amendments to the ACCA reveal a Congressional intent to distinguish occasions by temporal distance. Id. at 21. The United States maintains that the 1988 amendment only aimed to prevent specific application of the sentencing enhancement to defendants who committed simultaneous crimes. Id. at 25. As evidence, the United States refers first to the Solicitor General’s confession of error in Petty, where he differentiated between simultaneous crimes, like the robberies at issue in that case, and non-simultaneous crimes. Id. at 23, 36. Second, the United States notes that a Senate analysis of the amendment specifically mentioned that multi-count convictions could still constitute separate occasions. Id. at 24. Therefore, the United States urges that Congress unambiguously declined to exclude defendants like Wooden, whose individual crimes can be more readily temporally distinguished than the simultaneous robberies in Petty. Id. at 24. Finally, the United States explains that the rule of lenity cannot operate here because the text, structure, history, and purpose of the ACCA do not allow for any ambiguity about the meaning of “occasions.” Id. at 47.
ANALYTICAL CHALLENGES AND INCONSISTENT APPLICATION
Wooden argues that limiting the definition of a single occasion only to crimes that occur simultaneously poses analytical challenges and creates uneven results in the practical application of sentencing. Brief for Petitioner at 37, 43. Wooden suggests that this restricted definition unnecessarily exacerbates minor and potentially uncontested details—such as timing, property ownership, and accomplice activity—in determining when one crime ended and another began. Id. at 38. Wooden maintains that these minor distinctions often do not indicate anything about whether an offender is truly a “career” criminal and therefore fail to advance the rule’s object. Id. Additionally, Wooden elaborates that a rigid definition unintentionally causes the ACCA to treat ongoing crimes, such as kidnapping, more favorably than “point-in-time” offenses such as battery. Id. Even worse, Wooden claims, the disparate sentencing treatment perversely incentivizes criminals to commit overlapping crimes, rather than isolated crimes. Id. at 39. Wooden argues that this approach forces courts to make inconsistent exceptions for long duration crimes, leading to unfair and uneven application for different categories of crimes and criminals. Id. at 44.
The United States responds that defining sequential crimes to mean different occasions is a practicable solution because most lower courts have applied that framework when evaluating sentencing enhancements under the ACCA. Brief for Respondent at 39. Specifically, the United States counters that whether courts consider a crime to be continuing or instantaneous still depends on whether a criminal satisfies its crime’s distinct elements, not the ACCA’s guidelines. Id. at 39–40. Moreover, the United States asserts that Wooden’s holistic and fact-dependent proposal would force courts to consider nebulous concepts and poorly defined variables. Id. at 39, 41. Thus, the United States warns that without those distinctions courts will lack clear guidance in applying sentencing enhancements and therefore produce inconsistent results. Id. at 42. Moreover, the United States cautions that Wooden’s approach would give preferential treatment not only to criminal defendants whose crimes occurred uninterrupted in sequence, but also to criminals who commit more crimes close in time to one another. Id. at 44–45.
UNIFORMITY AND PROPORTIONALITY IN SENTENCING
The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center (“MJC”), in support of Wooden, asserts that a temporal-based interpretation of “occasion” conflicts with the ACCA’s underlying goal of promoting uniformity in sentencing. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, in Support of Petitioner at 8. MJC further argues that a temporal-based approach places too great of an emphasis on drawing distinctions between simultaneous and sequential offenses. Id. at 9. MJC warns that drawing distinctions on this basis impedes sentence uniformity because it asks sentencing courts to rely on insignificant facts particular to each defendant’s criminal history. Id. at 10.
FAMM, also in support of Wooden, contends that in addition to undermining uniformity in sentencing, a temporal-based interpretation of “occasion” leads to disproportionate and significantly harsher sentences. See Brief of Amicus Curiae FAMM, in Support of Petitioner at 8–9. FAMM argues that this danger is particularly relevant when mandatory minimums are in place because of their emphasis on deterrence and incapacitation of criminals. Id. at 10.
The United States counters that decades of judicial experience in applying a temporal-based interpretation of “occasion” ensures uniformity in sentencing. Brief for Respondent, United States at 19. Furthermore, the United States argues that Wooden’s holistic and fact-dependent interpretation of “occasion” would lead to disproportionate sentences. Id. at 43–44. The United States notes that, under a holistic and fact-dependent approach, factors such as the occurrence of an arrest and release between two offenses would render them different “occasions” under the ACCA. Id. at 44. Accordingly, the United States posits that this approach would cause inequities in sentencing and potentially overlook more dangerous offenders who avoid apprehension. Id.
RECIDIVISM AND “CAREER” CRIMINAL CONCERNS
Professors of Criminal Law (the “Professors”), in support of Wooden, argue that a temporal-based interpretation of “occasion” impermissibly broadens the class of criminals identified as repeat offenders. Brief of Amici Curiae Professors of Criminal Law, in Support of Petitioner at 13–14. Specifically, the Professors contend that individuals who commit multiple offenses as part of a single criminal episode are not necessarily “career” criminals. Id. The Professors assert that a temporal-based interpretation unjustly places “one-day career” criminals on the same level as particularly dangerous repeat offenders that Congress intended to target. Id.
Human Rights for Kids (“HRFK”), also in support of Wooden, argues that a temporal-based interpretation of “occasion” risks unjustifiably making juvenile offenders into “career” criminals. Brief of Amicus Curiae Human Rights for Kids, in support of Petitioner at 7. HRFK contends that because the ACCA includes juvenile convictions as qualifying offenses, a single night of juvenile criminal conduct can result in a mandatory 15-year sentence. Id. at 5. HRFK posits that this harsh result ignores an adolescent offender’s lack of maturity and forecloses any opportunity for juvenile rehabilitation. Id. at 7.
The United States counters that a holistic and fact-dependent interpretation of “occasion” would encourage repeat criminal offenses, so long as the offenses occur as part of one criminal spree or episode. Brief for Respondent at 45. Specifically, the United States argues that a holistic and fact-dependent approach encourages habitual offenders to commit more crimes in the span of one day or night. Id at 45–46. Furthermore, the United States cautions that repeat offenders could rely on pure luck, such as the lack of some intervening event between offenses, to avoid facing an enhanced sentence. See id. at 44.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), in support of Wooden, argues that a temporal-based interpretation of “occasion” unconstitutionally invites sentencing courts to conduct their own fact-finding when imposing enhanced sentences. See Brief of Amicus Curiae The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in Support of Petitioner at 7–9. NACDL emphasizes that the facts relevant to a temporal-based interpretation compel sentencing courts to look beyond the elements of a crime. Id. at 12. NACDL contends that this strips the jury of its traditional role as factfinder and ignores the constitutional requirement of finding the existence of each fact beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 23.
The United States counters that Wooden’s holistic and fact-dependent interpretation of “occasion” would require sentencing courts to undertake detailed and intricate fact-finding that would be unworkable in practice. Brief for Respondent at 35-36, 38-39. The United States argues that a temporal-based interpretation provides clear guidance to sentencing courts, who must determine only whether offenses are temporally distinct. Id. at 38. Additionally, the United States asserts that, in making this determination, sentencing courts do not need to look beyond the elements of each offense. Id. at 40.
The authors would like to thank Professor Geoffrey Corn for his insights into this case.
- Debra Cassens Weiss, Prisoner Who Filed Pro Se Appeal of His Enhanced Sentence Wins Supreme Court Review, The ABA Journal (Feb. 23, 2021)
- Supreme Court Grants Cert Again in ACCA Case, Defender Services Office Training Division (Feb. 22, 2021)