The case concerned a federal law that calls for stiff sentences for gun crimes when the defendant had committed three felonies “on occasions different from one another.”
In 1997, William Dale Wooden pleaded guilty to 10 counts of burglary, one for each of the adjacent storage units he had broken into in one night. More than a decade later, he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a gun.
Prosecutors sought a stiff sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a kind of three-strikes statute. It calls for a mandatory 15-year minimum sentence for defendants who unlawfully possessed a gun and had been convicted of three or more felonies like burglary “committed on occasions different from one another.”
A trial judge, ruling that each burglary was a separate occasion, sentenced Mr. Wooden to almost 16 years on the gun charge — about 14 years longer than the recommended sentence had he not been subject to the statute.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the series of burglaries took place on a single occasion, sparing Mr. Wooden from the longer sentence and giving rise to an extended and colorful meditation on the meaning of the word “occasion.”
“Consider 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,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for eight members of the court.
“The observer might say: ‘On one occasion, Wooden burglarized 10 units in a storage facility,’” she wrote. “By contrast, she would never say: ‘On 10 occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.’ Nor would she say anything like: ‘On one occasion, Wooden burglarized a storage unit; on a second occasion, he burglarized another unit; on a third occasion, he burglarized yet another; and so on.’”
Justice Kagan used an analogy.
“The occasion of a wedding, for example, often includes a ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and dancing,” she wrote. “Those doings are proximate in time and place, and have a shared theme (celebrating the happy couple); their connections are, indeed, what makes them part of a single event. But they do not occur at the same moment: The newlyweds would surely take offense if a guest organized a conga line in the middle of their vows.”
Justice Kagan added, “The same is true (to shift gears from the felicitous to the felonious) when it comes to crime.”
In general, courts should consider “a range of circumstances” in deciding whether crimes took place on a single occasion, she wrote. Among them are whether the offenses were close in time, part of an uninterrupted course of conduct and in the same place.
All of those factors counted in Mr. Wooden’s favor, she wrote.
Every member of the court sided with Mr. Wooden, but Justice Neil M. Gorsuch did not adopt Justice Kagan’s reasoning. A multifactor balancing test, he wrote, did not give lower courts adequate guidance.
“Imagine a defendant who sells drugs to the same undercover police officer twice at the same street corner one hour apart,” he wrote. “Do the sales take place on the same occasion or different ones?”
Justice Gorsuch added that Justice Kagan’s factors did not conclusively answer the question presented in Mr. Wooden’s case, Wooden v. United States, No. 20-5279.
“When it comes to location, each storage unit had its own number and space, each burglary infringed on a different person’s property, and Mr. Wooden had to break through a new wall to enter each one,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Suppose this case involved not adjacent storage units but adjacent townhomes or adjacent stores in a mall. If Mr. Wooden had torn through the walls separating them, would we really say his crimes occurred at the same location?”
The better approach, he wrote, would be to apply the “rule of lenity,” under which ambiguous laws are construed to favor the defendant.