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Justices unravel compounding of burglaries for Tennessee man’s sentencing

The defendant Thomas Wooden robbed 10 units at a single storage facility, but how those robberies were calculated under the Armed Career Criminal Act added up to more than a decade behind bars.

WASHINGTON (CN) —  The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday to throw out the sentencing enhancement that labeled a Tennessee felon as a career criminal based on his one-night robbery spree within a single storage facility.

William Wooden was hit with a 15-year sentence in 2015 for possessing a firearm as a felon but argued before the court in October that this punishment unfairly relied on the Armed Career Criminals Act — a federal law that stiffens punishments for felons who have committed more than three separate crimes with firearms.

"The question presented is whether Wooden’s prior convictions were for offenses occurring on different occasions, as the lower courts held, because the burglary of each unit happened at a distinct point in time, rather than simultaneously," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 15-page opinion Monday. "The answer is no. Convictions arising from a single criminal episode, in the way Wooden’s did, can count only once under ACCA."

At arguments before the court, Wooden did not dispute the line items of his criminal record: an aggravated assault in 1989, a burglary of 10 units in a storage facility in 1997 and a 2005 burglary, all in Georgia. He did deny, however, that those priors should be considered as violent felonies, arguing as well that the 1997 burglary conviction should be considered as a single offense.

Because Wooden and his associates had stolen from 10 different storage units in that offense, state prosecutors included 10 counts of burglary in Wooden's single indictment. 

Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Erica Ross had told the justices at oral arguments that Wooden’s breaking into 10 units should count as 10 separate crimes. as if he had entered “10 houses on the same street."

“Those are necessarily 10 different occasions," Ross told the court. "He could not have unlawfully entered each home through one act, and he had the choice not to commit another crime between each one."

Kagan emphasized Monday that this interpretation does not stand up to how the word occasion is understood.

“The ordinary meaning of the word ‘occasion’ — essentially an episode or event — refutes the Government’s single-minded focus on whether a crime’s elements were established at a discrete moment in time,” she wrote, noting that Wooden’s night of crime would typically be classified as one “occasion” by those talking about it. 

“Consider first how an ordinary person (a reporter; a police officer; yes, even a lawyer) might describe Wooden’s ten burglaries— and how she would not,” Kagan explained. “The observer might say: ‘On one occasion, Wooden burglarized ten units in a storage facility.’ By contrast, she would never say: ‘On ten 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.’”

Depending on how the crime is interpreted, Wooden’s punishment for possessing firearms changes significantly: the maximum sentence topping out at 10 years for less than three prior violent offenses committed on separate occasions, while more result in a minimum sentence of 15 years.

“In Wooden’s own case, the record reveals the discrepancy as especially stark,” Kagan acknowledged Monday. “Before the Government decided to seek an ACCA enhancement, its Probation Office recommended a sentence of 21 to 27 months. The ACCA minimum sentence is about 13 years longer.”

The court agreed to take up Wooden's case in February, and the man's attorney expressed excitement at their win Monday.

“Mr. Wooden is not an armed career criminal and never should have been subject to a 15-year mandatory-minimum sentence,” Allon Kedem with the firm Arnold & Porter said of his pro bono client. "We’re hopeful that he will soon be resentenced and sent back home to his family."

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Kagan emphasized Monday that offenses committed close in time, in the same general place, and in the same manner of conduct are typically one occasion.

“The more similar or intertwined the conduct giving rise to the offenses — the more, for example, they share a common scheme or purpose — the more apt they are to compose one occasion,” she wrote.

This interpretation unequivocally supports Wooden’s argument, the court found.

“Wooden committed his burglaries on a single night, in a single uninterrupted course of conduct," Kagan wrote. The crimes all took place at one location, a one-building storage facility with one address. Each offense was essentially identical, and all were intertwined with the others. The burglaries were part and parcel of the same scheme, actuated by the same motive, and accomplished by the same means.”

While all justices backed the judgment Monday, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanagh branched off from the main opinion issuing concurring texts of their own. 

Justices Samuel Alito, Thomas and Barrett all took issue with a portion of Kagan’s opinion where she argued that Congress’ purpose for the ACCA’s occasions clause was to confront the unique danger posed by career criminals.

“In enacting the occasions clause, Congress made certain that crimes like theirs, taken alone, would not subject a person to a 15-year minimum sentence for illegally possessing a gun,” Kagan argued.

Barrett said this argument leaned on “weak evidence.”

Meanwhile Justice Gorsuch expressed other concerns about another part of the main ruling.

His text was peppered with hypotheticals of other instances that could occur in the same relative place and time, that might not be as straightforward as Wooden’s — like a drug dealer who sells to the same undercover police officer twice at the same street corner one hour apart or a barroom bar fight instigator who assaults one person inside the establishment and another a short time later for calling the police. 

“Imagine, too, an individual who commits a robbery or burglary then later assaults a pursuing police officer: Does the later assault happen on a separate ‘occasion’ from the initial crime? The times, locations, and crimes differ, but they are related in certain respects too,” Gorsuch said in his 15-page opinion concurring in judgment Monday.

He concluded that Wooden’s case could technically compel another conclusion if more emphasis were placed on property.

“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,” 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?”

Sotomayor agreed that Gorsuch raised important questions about the clarity of the record as did Kavanaugh in his own concurring opinion.

Previously, a district court had accepted the government’s view that every storage unit constituted a different occasion. Though the Sixth Circuit affirmed, it added to a circuit split. While some circuits, like the Sixth, had held that an occasion takes place at a different moment in time sequentially, others had considered the timing of the crimes in relation to each other.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling Monday.

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