This Report summarizes opinions issued on March 3, 4, and 7 2022 (Part I); and cases granted review on February 28, 2022 (Part II).
Opinion: Wooden v. United States, 20-5279
Wooden v. United States, 20-5279. Without dissent, the Court held that petitioner’s burglary of ten units in a single storage facility one evening counts only once for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(1). In 1997, petitioner William Wooden unlawfully entered a one-building storage facility and, proceeding unit by unit, entered and stole items from ten different storage units. Under a Georgia law that required “crimes arising from the same conduct” to be prosecuted together, Wooden was charged under a single indictment with, and pleaded guilty to, ten counts of burglary. Seventeen years later, Wooden was arrested for, and convicted of, being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §922(g). Although the federal probation office recommended a sentence of 21 to 27 months, the government sought an enhanced penalty under ACCA, which mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for unlawful gun possession when the offender has three or more prior convictions for particular felonies that were “committed on occasions different from one another.” The district court applied the enhanced penalty, having accepted the government’s argument that, because each burglary was complete once Wooden moved onto the next storage unit, each burglary constituted a separate “occasion” for purposes of ACCA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court reversed.
The Court looked to the operative term “occasion” and its “ordinary meaning.” The Court found that the term commonly referred to “an event, occurrence, happening, or episode.” And each one of these terms could in turn encompass “multiple, temporally distinct activities.” To illustrate, the Court analogized to the “occasion” of a traditional wedding, which might include several distinct and temporally separate components, such as a ceremony, cocktail hour, and reception. Applied to the criminal context, the Court found that one “occasion” could similarly encompass “temporally discrete offenses,” even if one criminal offense was, through the technical satisfaction of all of its requisite elements, “complete” before another began. The Court supported this conclusion by noting that the government’s position, under which a court must “treat each temporally distinct offense as its own occasion,” would, in effect, render the occasions clause superfluous. As noted above, ACCA’s enhanced penalty provision has two components: an offender must have been convicted of (1) three violent felonies (2) that occurred on different “occasions.” But, the Court observed, because few crimes are committed at the exact same time, under the government’s view nearly every separate criminal act will also constitute a separate “occasion,” essentially giving the occasions clause “no work to do.”
The Court then identified several factors that would inform an analysis of whether crimes occurred during the same “occasion.” First, proximity of time: “Offenses committed close in time, in an uninterrupted course of conduct, will often count as part of one occasion; not so offenses separated by substantial gaps in time or significant intervening events.” Second, proximity of location: “the further away crimes take place, the less likely they are components of the same criminal event.” Finally, “the character and relationship of the offenses”: “The more similar or intertwined the conduct giving rise to the offenses—the more, for example, they share a common scheme of purpose—the more apt they are to compose one occasion.” The Court observed that applying this approach would, in most cases, be “straightforward and intuitive,” with a single factor (such as distance or time) often being dispositive. Applying these factors here, the Court concluded that Wooden’s ten burglaries constituted a single “occasion.” The Court noted that Wooden committed the burglaries on a single night, in a single location, and as “part and parcel of the same scheme, actuated by the same motive, and accomplished by the same means.” The Court also found confirmation in the fact that all of the burglaries were charged under the same indictment, which Georgia law required for “crimes arising from the same conduct.”
In a part of the Court’s opinion joined by only four other Justices, Justice Kagan explained how the history and purpose of ACCA confirmed both the meaning of “occasion” and its application in this case. The Court detailed how, for its first four years of existence, ACCA’s enhanced penalty provision did not include reference to an “occasion,” and was instead concerned only with whether a defendant had three or more prior convictions. The “occasion” language was added after a district court (and later the Eighth Circuit) applied ACCA’s enhanced penalty provision to an offender, Samuel Petty, who had been previously convicted of multiple robberies after he entered a restaurant and robbed multiple patrons at gunpoint seriatim. When Petty sought review in the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General confessed error, stating that it was inappropriate to construe ACCA “to reach multiple felony convictions arising out of a single criminal episode.” In doing so, the Solicitor General asked the Court to look to ACCA’s legislative history, which showed that ACCA was intended only to apply to individuals who could be characterized as “career criminals” and “habitual offenders.” In light of the government’s changed position, the Court remanded the case to the circuit court for further consideration, which ultimately decided in Petty’s favor. The next year, Congress amended ACCA to include the occasions clause. In concluding that this change was precipitated by the Petty case, the Court here found significant an analysis from the Senate Judiciary Committee explaining that the addition of the occasions clause “would clarify the armed career criminal statute to reflect the Solicitor General’s construction [in Petty].” The Court found that this legislative history, which eschewed a technical reading of “occasion,” refuted the government’s current position.
Justice Barrett, in an opinion joined by Justice Thomas, took issue with the Court’s reliance on the legislative history of ACCA. Justice Barrett argued that the Court’s historical analysis suffered from two “flawed inferences”: “first, that Congress specifically intended to reject the Eighth Circuit’s initial decision in Petty, and second, that it embraced the former Solicitor General’s reasoning for why that decision was wrong.” In addition to leveling general criticism of the use of legislative history, Justice Barrett argued that it was particularly improper for the Court to rely on arguments made by the former Solicitor General. Justice Barrett suggested that doing so would have “downstream effects” such as “invit[ing] both litigants and lower courts to mine the Solicitor General’s brief for guidance on the scope of the occasions clause.”
Justice Gorsuch concurred in the judgment only. Justice Gorsuch took issue with the Court’s attempt to craft a multifactor test to determine what constitutes a single “occasion.” He argued that these factors themselves held “much uncertainty,” and provided “little guidance,” given “the almost infinite number of factual permutations [ACCA] cases can present.” Justice Gorsuch instead argued that the key to resolving uncertain cases (such as the one before the Court) is the rule of lenity, a principle stating that penal laws should be applied strictly and in favor of liberty. In a part of his opinion joined by Justice Sotomayor, Justice Gorsuch examined the scope of the rule of lenity and its relationship with due process, fair notice, and separation of powers. Justice Gorsuch also addressed the degree of ambiguity required to trigger the rule of lenity. Although he acknowledged that recent Supreme Court case law stated that the rule of lenity was only to be invoked where there was a “grievous” statutory ambiguity, Justice Gorsuch traced the history of the rule of lenity to show that such a limitation was inconsistent with its traditional application. In addition, Justice Gorsuch explained that, where the traditional rules of statutory interpretation did not yield a clear answer for a criminal statute, it was improper to resort to legislative history or purpose. Rather, “[t]he next step is to lenity.”
Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately to respond to Justice Gorsuch’s discussion of the scope of the rule of lenity. Unlike Justice Gorsuch, Justice Kavanaugh argued that the rule of lenity should have only a limited role in the Court’s criminal case law. Justice Kavanaugh maintained that the rule of lenity should come into play only when a statute is “grievously ambiguous,” and where all tools of statutory interpretation have otherwise been exhausted. Justice Kavanaugh added that any concern for fair notice in criminal law should be addressed through other doctrines that protect criminal defendants against arbitrary or vague federal criminal statutes. In particular, Justice Kavanaugh highlighted the presumption of mens rea, which generally requires the government to prove a defendant’s mens rea for each element of a criminal offense.
[Editor’s note: Some of the language in the background section of the summary above was taken from the petition for writ of certiorari and brief in opposition.]