Supreme Court says 10 burglaries can count as one offense

In 1997, William Dale Wooden pleaded guilty to 10 counts of burglary, one for each of the adjacent storage units he broke into in one night. More than a decade later, he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Prosecutors have asked for a harsh sentence under the Armed Careers Crime Act, a kind of three strikes law. It calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for defendants who illegally possessed a firearm and had been convicted of three or more crimes like burglary “committed on separate occasions from each other”.

A trial judge, ruling that each burglary was a separate occasion, sentenced Mr Wooden to almost 16 years on the firearms charge – about 14 years longer than the recommended sentence if he had not not been subject to the law.

Monday, the The Supreme Court ruled that the series of burglaries took place on a single occasion, sparing Mr. Wooden the longer sentence and giving rise to a long and colorful meditation on the meaning of the word “occasion”.

“Consider first how an ordinary person (a journalist, a policeman, yes, even a lawyer) might describe Wooden’s 10 burglaries — and how they wouldn’t,” Judge Elena Kagan wrote for eight court members. .

“The observer might say, ‘On one occasion, Wooden broke into 10 units in a warehouse,'” she wrote. “On the other hand, she would never say, ‘On 10 occasions, Wooden broke into a unit at the facility. Nor would she say, “On one occasion, Wooden broke into a storage unit; on a second occasion, he robbed another unit; a third time he robbed yet another; etc.”

Justice Kagan used an analogy.

“The occasion of a wedding, for example, often includes a ceremony, a cocktail party, a dinner and a dance,” she writes. “These actions are close in time and place, and have a common theme (celebrating the happy couple); their connections are, in effect, what makes them part of a unique event. But they don’t happen at the same time: the newlyweds would surely take offense if a guest threw a conga line in the middle of their vows.

Judge Kagan added: “The same is true (to go from happy to criminal) when it comes to crime.”

In general, courts should consider “a series of circumstances” in deciding whether crimes took place on a single occasion, she wrote. Among them is the question of whether the offenses were close in time, part of an uninterrupted driving course and in the same place.

All of these factors worked in favor of Mr. Wooden, she wrote.

Every member of the court sided with Mr. Wooden, but Judge Neil M. Gorsuch did not adopt Judge Kagan’s reasoning. A multifactor balancing test, he wrote, did not give lower courts adequate guidance.

“Imagine a defendant selling drugs to the same plainclothes policeman twice on the same street corner an hour apart,” he wrote. “Do the sales take place on the same occasion or on different occasions?

Judge Gorsuch added that Judge Kagan’s factors did not conclusively answer the question posed in Mr. Wooden’s case, Wooden v. United States, No. 20-5279.

“In terms of location, each storage unit had its own number and space, each break-in involved a different person’s property, and Mr. Wooden had to break through a new wall to get into each” , wrote Justice Gorsuch. “Let’s assume this case is not about adjacent storage units, but about adjacent townhouses or adjacent stores in a mall. If Mr. Wooden had torn down the walls that separated them, would we really say that his crimes took place in the same place? »

The best approach, he wrote, would be to apply the “leniency rule,” under which ambiguous laws are interpreted to favor the defendant.

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