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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
WILLIAM DALE WOODEN, PETITIONER v.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
[March 7, 2022]
Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court.
In the course of one evening, William Dale Wooden burglarized ten units in a single storage facility. He later pleaded guilty, for that night’s work, to ten counts of burglary—one for each storage unit he had entered. Some two decades later, the courts below concluded that those convictions were enough to subject Wooden to enhanced criminal penalties under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). That statute mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for unlawful gun possession when the offender has three or more prior convictions for violent felonies like burglary “committed on occasions different from one another.”
18 U. S. C. §924(e)(1). 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. The answer is no. Convictions arising from a single criminal episode, in the way Wooden’s did, can count only once under ACCA.
Begin in 1997, when Wooden and three confederates unlawfully entered a one-building storage facility at 100 Williams Road in Dalton, Georgia, next door to Wooden’s home. The burglars proceeded from unit to unit within the facility, “crushing the interior drywall” between them. App. 32 (indictment); see Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 6a (statement of Assistant District Attorney at plea hearing) (“[O]nce they made entry” into the facility, they “burrowed through from . . . unit to unit”). The men stole items from, all told, ten different storage units. So Georgia prosecutors charged them with ten counts of burglary—though, as state law prescribes, in a single indictment. See Ga. Code Ann. §16–1–7(b) (1996) (requiring “crimes arising from the same conduct” to be prosecuted together). Wooden pleaded guilty to all counts. The judge sentenced him to eight years’ imprisonment for each conviction, with the ten terms to run concurrently.
Fast forward now to a cold November morning in 2014, when Wooden responded to a police officer’s knock on his door. The officer asked to speak with Wooden’s wife. And noting the chill in the air, the officer asked if he could step inside, to stay warm. Wooden agreed. But his good deed did not go unpunished. Once admitted to the house, the officer spotted several guns. Knowing that Wooden was a felon, the officer placed him under arrest. A jury later convicted him for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of
18 U. S. C. §922(g).
The penalty for that crime varies significantly depending on whether ACCA applies. Putting ACCA aside, the maximum
sentence for violating §922(g) is ten years in prison. See §924(a)(2). But ACCA mandates a minimum
sentence of fifteen years if the §922(g) offender has three prior convictions for “violent felon[ies]” (like burglary) or “serious drug offense[s]” that were “committed on occasions different from one another.” §924(e)(1). In Wooden’s own case, the record reveals the discrepancy as especially stark. Before the Government decided to seek an ACCA enhancement, its Probation Office recommended a sentence of 21 to 27 months. See App. 38–39, 42. The ACCA minimum sentence is about 13 years longer.
The District Court’s sentencing hearing focused on whether Wooden’s ten convictions for breaking into the storage facility sufficed to trigger ACCA. Wooden said they did not because he had burglarized the ten storage units on a single occasion, rather than “on occasions different from one another.” §924(e)(1). The burglaries, he explained, happened “during the same criminal episode,” “at the same business location, under the same roof.” App. 50. And given those facts, he continued, the burglaries were “charged in a single indictment.” Ibid.
But the District Court accepted the Government’s view that every time Wooden busted into another storage unit, he commenced a new “occasion” of criminal activity. The court reasoned, relying on Circuit precedent, that the entry into “[e]ach separate [unit] provides a discrete point at which the first offense was completed and the second began and so on.” Id
., at 59. Based on the ACCA enhancement, the court sentenced Wooden to 188 months (almost 16 years) in prison for unlawfully possessing a gun.
The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the sentence, on the same reasoning. “[I]t is possible,” the court stated, “to discern the point at which Wooden’s first offense” was “completed and the subsequent point at which his second offense began.” 945 F.3d 498, 505 (2019). After all, “Wooden could not be in two (let alone ten) of [the storage units] at once.” Ibid.
In the court’s view, the sequential nature of Wooden’s crimes—his progression from one unit in the storage facility to the next to the next—meant that the crimes were “committed on occasions different from one another.” And so, the court concluded, Wooden qualified as a career offender under ACCA.
The Courts of Appeals have divided over the meaning of ACCA’s “occasions” clause. Some Circuits, like the Sixth, deem the clause satisfied whenever crimes take place at different moments in time—that is, sequentially rather than simultaneously.[1
] Other Circuits undertake a more holistic inquiry, considering not merely the precise timing but also other circumstances of the crimes.[2
] We granted certiorari, 592 U. S. ___ (2021), to resolve that split of authority.[3
Framed in terms of this case, the disputed question is whether Wooden committed his crimes on a single occasion or on ten separate ones.
The Government answers ten, relying on a legally fancified version of the Sixth Circuit’s timing test. In the ACCA context, the Government argues, an “occasion” happens “at a particular point in time”—the moment “when [an offense’s] elements are established.” Brief for United States 9. So offenses “occur on different ‘occasions’ when the criminal conduct necessary to satisfy the offense elements occurs at different times.” Id.
, at 13. Applying that elements-based, “temporal-distinctness test” to this case, the Government explains that Wooden’s burglaries were “quintessentially sequential, rather than simultaneous.” Id.
, at 10, 20. After all, a person can satisfy the elements of burglary only by entering (or remaining in) a structure with criminal intent. See, e.g.
, Ga. Code Ann. §16–7–1(a). And it would have been “physically impossible” for Wooden to have entered (or remained in) multiple storage units “at once.” Brief for United States 12. Each of Wooden’s ten entries thus counts (so says the Government) as another “occasion,” triggering ACCA’s stringent penalties more than three times over.
We think not. 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. And ACCA’s history and purpose do so too: The origin of the “occasions” clause confirms that multiple crimes may occur on one occasion even if not at the same moment. Wooden’s night of crime is a perfect case in point. His one-after-another-after-another burglary of ten units in a single storage facility occurred on one “occasion,” under a natural construction of that term and consistent with the reason it became part of ACCA.
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. 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.” She would, using language in its normal way, group his entries into the storage units, even though not simultaneous, all together—as happening on a single occasion, rather than on ten “occasions different from one another.” §924(e)(1).
That usage fits the ordinary meaning of “occasion.” The word commonly refers to an event, occurrence, happening, or episode. See, e.g.
, American Heritage Dictionary 908 (1981); Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1560 (3d ed. 1986). And such an event, occurrence, happening, or episode—which is simply to say, such an occasion—may itself encompass multiple, temporally distinct activities. The occasion of a wedding, for example, often includes a ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner, and dancing. 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. That is because an occasion may—and the hypothesized one does—encompass a number of non-simultaneous activities; it need not be confined to a single one.
The same is true (to shift gears from the felicitous to the felonious) when it comes to crime. In that sphere too, an “occasion” means an event or episode—which may, in common usage, include temporally discrete offenses. Consider a couple of descriptions from this Court’s cases. “On one occasion,” we noted, “Bryant hit his live-in girlfriend on the head with a beer bottle and attempted to strangle her.” United States
579 U.S. 140, 151 (2016). “On one occasion
”—regardless whether those acts occurred at once (as the Government would require) or instead succeeded one another. Ibid
Likewise, we said: “[T]he State has stipulated that the robbery and murder arose out of ‘the same set of facts, circumstances, and the same occasion.’ ” Turner
407 U.S. 366
, 368–369 (1972) (per curiam
). “[T]he same occasion
”—irrespective whether the murder took place during (as the Government insists on) or instead just after the robbery. Ibid.
Or take a hypothetical suggested by oral argument here: A barroom brawl breaks out, and a patron hits first one, then another, and then a third of his fellow drinkers. The Government maintains those are not just three offenses (assaults) but also three “occasions” because they happened seriatim. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 52–53, 61–62. But in making the leap from three offenses to three occasions, based on a split-second separation between punches, the Government leaves ordinary language behind. The occasion in the hypothetical is the barroom brawl, not each individual fisticuff.
By treating each temporally distinct offense as its own occasion, the Government goes far toward collapsing two separate statutory conditions. Recall that ACCA kicks in only if (1) a §922(g) offender has previously been convicted of three violent felonies, and (2) those three felonies were committed on “occasions different from one another.” §924(e)(1); see supra
, at 2. In other words, the statute contains both
a three-offense requirement and
a three-occasion requirement. But under the Government’s view, the two will generally boil down to the same thing: When an offender’s criminal history meets the three-offense demand, it will also meet the three-occasion one. That is because people seldom commit—indeed, seldom can commit—multiple ACCA offenses at the exact same time. Take burglary. It is, just as the Government argues, “physically impossible” for an offender to enter different structures simultaneously. Brief for United States 16–17; see supra
, at 4–5. Or consider crimes defined by the use of physical force, such as assault or murder. Except in unusual cases (like a bombing), multiple offenses of that kind happen one by one by one, even if all occur in a short spell. The Government’s reading, to be sure, does not render the occasions clause wholly superfluous; in select circumstances, a criminal may satisfy the elements of multiple offenses in a single instant. But for the most part, the Government’s hyper-technical focus on the precise timing of elements—which can make someone a career criminal in the space of a minute—gives ACCA’s three-occasions requirement no work to do.
The inquiry that requirement entails, given what “occasion” ordinarily means, is more multi-factored in nature. From the wedding to the barroom brawl, all the examples offered above suggest that a range of circumstances may be relevant to identifying episodes of criminal activity. Timing of course matters, though not in the split-second, elements-based way the Government proposes. 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. 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 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.
For the most part, applying this approach will be straightforward and intuitive. In the Circuits that have used it, we can find no example (nor has the Government offered one) of judges coming out differently on similar facts. In many cases, a single factor—especially of time or place—can decisively differentiate occasions. Courts, for instance, have nearly always treated offenses as occurring on separate occasions if a person committed them a day or more apart, or at a “significant distance.” United States
, 3 F.3d 32
(CA2 1993); see, e.g.
, United States
, 47 F.3d 460
, 462 (CA1 1995) (per curiam
). In other cases, the inquiry just as readily shows a single occasion, because all the factors cut that way. That is true, for example, in our barroom-brawl hypothetical, where the offender has engaged in a continuous stream of closely related criminal acts at one location. Of course, there will be some hard cases in between, as under almost any legal test. When that is so, assessing the relevant circumstances may also involve keeping an eye on ACCA’s history and purpose, which we next discuss. See infra
, at 10–14. But in law as in life, it is usually not so difficult to identify an “occasion”: Given that the term in ACCA has just its ordinary meaning, most cases should involve no extra-ordinary work.
And surely, this one does not. Here, every relevant consideration shows that Wooden burglarized ten storage units on a single occasion, even though his criminal activity resulted in double-digit convictions. Wooden committed his burglaries on a single night, in a single uninterrupted course of conduct. 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. Indeed, each burglary in some sense facilitated the next, as Wooden moved from unit to unit to unit, all in a row. And reflecting all these facts, Georgia law treated the burglaries as integrally connected. Because they “ar[ose] from the same conduct,” the prosecutor had to charge all ten in a single indictment. Ga. Code Ann. §16–1–7(b); see Morgan
, 220 Ga. App. 198, 199–200, 469 S.E.2d 340
, 341–343 (1996) (holding that, under §16–1–7(b), similar drug offenses had to be charged together because they occurred “very close in time” as “part of an ongoing chain of events”); supra
, at 2. The indictment thus confirms what all the circumstances suggest: One criminal occasion notwithstanding ten crimes.[4
Statutory history and purpose confirm our view of the occasions clause’s meaning, as well as our conclusion that Wooden is not a career offender. For the first four years of its existence, ACCA asked only about offenses, not about occasions. Its enhanced penalties, that is, kicked in whenever a §922(g) offender had three prior convictions for specified crimes—in the initial version, for robbery or burglary alone, and in the soon-amended version, for any violent felony or serious drug offense. See Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, §1802,
2185; Career Criminals Amendment Act of 1986, §1402(a),
3207–39. Congress added the occasions clause only after a court applied ACCA to an offender much like Wooden—a person convicted of multiple counts of robbery arising from a single criminal episode.
In that precipitating case, Samuel Petty received ACCA’s minimum 15-year penalty for gun possession based on his earlier stickup of a Manhattan restaurant. Petty and three associates had entered the establishment brandishing an assortment of guns and ordered the patrons and employees to the floor. See Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 11a–12a (New York State’s brief ). The gunmen then made their way around the premises, collecting money and other valuables from the prostrate victims. See id.
, at 12a–17a.
For his role in the crime, Petty was convicted of six counts of robbery—one count for each of six individuals whose property had been taken—and served concurrent 5-year sentences. See United States
, 798 F.2d 1157, 1159–1160 (CA8 1986).
Some years later, Petty was caught possessing a firearm and convicted of violating §922(g). Federal prosecutors asked for heightened penalties under ACCA, pointing to his six robbery convictions from the restaurant incident. The District Court sentenced Petty on that basis, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. That court held it irrelevant under ACCA that the six convictions “ar[ose] out of the same transaction.” Id.
, at 1160.
But when Petty sought this Court’s review, the Solicitor General confessed error, stating that ACCA should not be construed “to reach multiple felony convictions arising out of a single criminal episode.” Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 30a–31a. In taking that position—requiring the convictions to come instead from “multiple criminal episodes”—the Solicitor General could not rely on ACCA’s text. Id.
, at 26a. He acknowledged that ACCA lacked language found in other penalty-enhancement laws requiring prior crimes to have occurred on “occasions different from one another.” Id.
, at 25a–26a (quoting
18 U. S. C. §3575(e)(1) (1982 ed.);
21 U. S. C. §849(e)(1) (1982 ed.)). But in the Solicitor General’s view, the legislative history showed that Congress intended ACCA to have the same scope as those other laws. The Solicitor General highlighted “references throughout the legislative reports and the floor debates to ‘career criminals,’ ‘repeat offenders,’ ‘habitual offenders,’ ‘recidivists,’ ‘revolving door’ offenders, [and] ‘three time loser[s].’ ” Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 27a, and n. 6. Those references, along with the very “title of the Act—the Armed Career Criminal Act,” made clear that the courts in Petty’s case had read ACCA too broadly. Id.
, at 26a (internal quotation marks omitted). According to the Solicitor General, Petty’s six robbery convictions—because they arose from “a single criminal episode”—should have counted as just one. In light of that changed position, this Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for “further consideration.” Petty
v. United States
481 U.S. 1034, 1034–1035 (1987). And this time, the Eighth Circuit found in Petty’s favor. See United States
828 F.2d 2, 3 (1987) (per curiam
More important here, Congress amended ACCA to prevent future Pettys from being sentenced as career criminals. Just one year after the Solicitor General confessed error, Congress added the occasions clause—demanding, exactly as in the other laws he had cited, that the requisite prior crimes occur on “occasions different from one another.” Minor and Technical Criminal Law Amendments Act of 1988, §7056,
4402. In placing the amendment on the Senate calendar, Senator Robert Byrd introduced an analysis, on behalf of the Judiciary Committee, setting out the genesis and purpose of the new language. “The proposed amendment,” the analysis explained, “would clarify the armed career criminal statute to reflect the Solicitor General’s construction” in Petty
. 134 Cong. Rec. 13783 (1988). His “interpretation plainly expresses,” the analysis continued, “what is meant by a ‘career criminal,’ that is, a person who over the course of time commits three or more of the enumerated kinds of felonies.” Ibid.
The statement concluded that “clarify[ing] the statute in this regard” would “insure that its rigorous sentencing provisions apply only as intended in cases meriting such strict punishment.” Ibid.
Congress enacted the amendment with near-unanimous support. See 134 Cong. Rec. 24924, 30826, 32678, 33318.[5
That statutory change, rejecting the original outcome in Petty
in light of the Solicitor General’s confession of error,
is at odds with the Government’s current view of the occasions clause. After all, that view does not (as the former Solicitor General’s did) demand “multiple criminal episodes” as ordinarily understood: To the contrary, it enables ACCA “to reach multiple felony convictions arising out of a single criminal episode” so long as the crimes’ elements are not satisfied at once. Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 26a, 31a (confession of error); see supra
, at 4–5, 7. To be sure, the Government proposes a way to reconcile its test with the rejection of the enhanced sentence given to Petty: The restaurant robberies, the Government says, happened on one occasion because “the defendants ordered all the victims to turn over their belongings at once, under a continuous show of force, and multiple gunmen gathered the victims’ items simultaneously.” Brief for United States 25. But even if that is true—the briefs and opinions in the case do not clearly say—the Government’s theory makes the “how many occasions” question turn on trifles. Suppose Petty and his cohorts had proceeded without all this purported simultaneity. Suppose they had robbed everyone in the dining room first, then everyone in the kitchen. Or suppose the robbers had gone from booth to booth to booth, turning their guns on their victims in turn. The Government says that with any such “sequenc[ing],” a different result would obtain. Ibid.
; see Tr. of Oral Arg. 52–53, 60–62. What it does not do, except in the most technical sense, is explain why. Nothing about the Solicitor General’s confession of error, or the action Congress took in its wake, suggests any concern for the exact ordering of Petty’s actions. Each was based instead on another idea: A person who has robbed a restaurant, and done nothing else, is not a “habitual offender[ ]” or “career criminal[ ].” Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 27a; see also 134 Cong. Rec. 13782–13783.
The history of the occasions clause thus aligns with what this Court has always recognized as ACCA’s purpose. Congress enacted ACCA to address the “special danger” posed by the eponymous “armed career criminal.” Begay
v. United States
553 U.S. 137
, 146 (2008). The theory of the statute is that “those who commit a large number of fairly serious crimes as their means of livelihood” are especially likely to inflict grave harm when in possession of a firearm. Taylor
v. United States
495 U.S. 575
, 587–588 (1990). And so the statute targets “a particular subset of offenders”—those who have repeatedly committed violent crimes. Begay
, 553 U. S., at 147.
It was that focus on “revolving door” felons that the Solicitor General referenced in arguing that the courts in Petty
had construed ACCA too broadly. See Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 27a, and n. 6; supra
, at 11. And it was that focus to which Congress itself returned in adding the occasions clause—once again, “to insure that [ACCA’s] rigorous sentencing provisions apply only as intended in cases meriting such strict punishment.” 134 Cong. Rec. 13783; see supra
, at 12.
Wooden’s burglary of a storage facility does not create that kind of case, any more than Petty’s robbery of a restaurant did. Wooden’s convictions, much like Petty’s, arose from a closely related set of acts occurring on the same night, at the same place—making up, just as the former Solicitor General said, “a single criminal episode.” Addendum to Brief for Petitioner 31a; see supra
, at 11. Wooden did not become a career criminal when he moved from the second storage unit to the third, as Petty did not when he moved from the second to the third of the restaurant’s patrons. Wooden and Petty both served significant sentences for their crimes, and rightly so. But 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.
For the reasons stated, Wooden’s ten burglary convictions were for offenses committed on a single occasion. They therefore count only once under ACCA. We reverse the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.