What Impact Will Wooden v. U.S. Have on Criminal Defense?

What Impact Will Wooden v. U.S. Have on Criminal Defense? In March 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral in a case involving how predicate offenses – crimes that may be considered a component of a larger crime – are considered and classified under the Armed Career Criminal Act. SCOTUS reversed the decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which had held that offenses could be separate from each other, despite occurring as part of a single criminal spree.

In Wooden v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, that the petitioner’s burglary of 10 units in a single storage facility during one occasion counts only once under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).

Here’s the breakdown: In 1997, William Wooden broke into a one-building storage facility and proceeded, unit by unit, to enter and steal items from 10 separate storage units. Wooden was charged with a single indictment under a Georgia law requiring crimes arising from the same conduct to be prosecuted together and pleaded guilty to 10 counts of burglary.

Seventeen years later, when Wooden was arrested and convicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm, the federal prosecutor sought an enhanced penalty under ACCA, which requires a 15-year minimum sentence for illegal gun possession when the criminal has three or more previous convictions for violent gun or drug felonies that were “committed on occasions different from one another.”

During sentencing, the probation office report classified Wooden as an armed career criminal under ACCA because he had more than three prior convictions for violent felonies, including the 10 burglaries in 1997. Wooden objected to the classification, arguing that the 10 burglaries resulted from a single occasion and as such were just one “predicate crime” pursuant to the ACCA, meaning that the burglaries involved only one legal instance on which to base the classification, rather than 10 instances.

The district court rejected the argument and applied the enhanced penalty which made Wooden’s sentence approximately eight times longer, reasoning that because each burglary was completed once Wooden moved to break into the next storage unit, each burglary constituted a separate occasion under the ACCA. The Sixth Circuit confirmed the decision. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that the 10 burglaries in 1997 did not happen on different occasions and should instead count as one prior conviction under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).

To explain the ruling, Justice Kagan gave this example: During a bar brawl, one drinker hits another patron, then another, and then a third one. Under the government’s reasoning, these three assaults occurred on different occasions. Justice Kagan wrote:

Timing of course matters, though not in the split-second, elements-based way the government proposes. … Proximity of location is also important; the further away crimes take place, the less likely they are components of the same criminal event. And the character and relationship of the offenses may make a difference: The more similar and 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.

When an offender engages in a continuous stream of closely related criminal acts at one location, those should be counted as one occasion for the purpose of the ACCA, Justice Kagan said.

So, what does this have to do with criminal defense?

Passed during the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s, the ACCA mandates that judges impose a minimum sentence of 15 years – with a maximum sentence of life – for felons in possession of a firearm. An offender qualifies for the ACCA enhancement if they have three prior convictions for violent felonies committed on different “occasions.”

Because Wooden only broke the law on one previous occasion (the 1997 storage unit burglary), prosecutors argued that this crime was actually 10 separate “occasions” (one for each unit that he burglarized) so that instead of just two years in prison, he was given a term of nearly 16 years. A federal appeals court affirmed the sentence, but SCOTUS reversed it, rejecting Wooden’s false characterization as a career criminal. According to the MacArthur Justice Center, “Congress reserved the ACCA’s fifteen-year mandatory-minimum sentence for those limited few who, through repeated lawbreaking, have demonstrated their adherence to a life of crime. That’s not the case of Wooden and other ‘one-day career criminals’ like him.”

Numerous cases have focused on questions regarding exactly which prior offenses could trigger the ACCA, and legal experts say the decision could affect thousands of people who are subject to the law. According to a recent Slate report, the Wooden ruling “is almost enough to restore one’s faith in the Supreme Court’s ability to act like a real court.” By rejecting a “harsh and ludicrous” interpretation of a federal statute that would have turned relatively short prison terms into potential life sentences, they engaged in a “well-reasoned decision [that] throws the Supreme Court’s usual dysfunction.”

Wooden is currently serving a 16-year sentence in a low-security prison in Arkansas, with a release date of 2028. Without the ACCA enhancement, his maximum sentence would have been 10 years, although the probation office recommended a much lighter sentence than that – 21-27 months. As Attorney Allon Kendem, who argued the case for Wooden, recently told Bloomberg Law, “We’re delighted that the Supreme Court has agreed that Mr. Wooden is not an Armed Career Criminal.”

At Mary Beth Harrell Law Firm, we, too, are thrilled with the unanimous SCOTUS ruling. The ACCA was the precursor to so-called “three strikes laws” across the country. Those laws have always been a stain on the justice system, ensuring that our prisons are overcrowded and our courts are always backlogged. Over the years, we have seen lives and families destroyed by these laws, and we hope that the new ruling is a step in repealing them all for good.

Until that happens, we are here to help when you are facing criminal charges of any kind. Our defense attorneys in Killeen and Copperas Cove are smart, tough, and fighting for you. To schedule a consultation, please call 254-680-4655 or fill out our contact form. We serve all of Central Texas, including Coryell and Bell Counties, Temple, and Belmont.