« "But What Does It Mean? Defining, Measuring, and Analyzing Desistance From Crime in Criminal Justice" | Main | Missouri completes execution of inmate who claimed to be intellectually disabled »

October 5, 2021

Wooden it be remarkable if the Constitution again has something to say about applying ACCA?

For some reason, the Supreme Court's Wooden case concerning proper application of the Armed Career Criminal Act prompts me to make silly post titles.  My prior recent post, "Wooden, SCOTUS on the ACCA, not so free and easy," riffed poorly on song lyrics, while today I am trying a bad pun.  The question within the punny title here is driven by the fact that the Supreme Court has previously blown up part of ACCA based on Fifth Amendment vagueness problems (Johnson from 2015) and has also shaped its application of the statute based on Sixth Amendment jury right worries (Shepard from 2005).  So, perhaps unsurprisingly, during SCOTUS oral argument yesterday in Wooden, a number of Justices raised both Fifth and Sixth Amendment concerns about  courts having to figure out the reach of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum for unlawful gun possession based on just whether and when a defendant on a prior crime spree has committed predicate offenses "on occasions different from one another."

I am disinclined to make bold predictions after listening to the oral argument, though I am tempted to predict that the defendant will prevail and the question is going to be on what ground(s). I reach that view because even Justice Alito seemed to be struggling to figure out how to give meaningful content to a key phrase that determines at least five years of federal imprisonment.  Here are a few choice quotes from Justice Alito: "This seems to me to be a nearly impossible question of statutory interpretation because the term 'occasion"' does not have a very precise meaning.";  "I have no idea what an occasion is or what a criminal opportunity is or what a criminal episode is."  If Justice Alito cannot come up with a pro-prosecution reading of the applicable statute, I doubt other Justices will be able to do so -- especially because many of the other Justices who generally tend to favor the government also tend to be fans of the Fifth and/or Sixth Amendment doctrines in play in this case (I am thinking here of the Chief Justice as well as Justices Thomas and Gorsuch).

For some other views on the argument, here is a round up of some of the press coverage I have seen:

From Bloomberg Law, "Justices Parse ‘Occasion’ Meaning in Career-Criminal Appeal"

From Courthouse News Service, "Burglary of many units in one facility poses counting challenge at sentencing"

From Law360, "Justices Dubious About Feds' 'Career Criminal' Interpretation"

From SCOTUSBlog, "A hypothetical-filled argument proves how tricky it is to define an 'occasion'"

October 5, 2021 at 04:07 PM | Permalink

Comments


The Supreme Court Can't Deliver Justice for William Wooden

The Court’s preoccupation with the precise definition of “occasion” obscures a multitude of deeper failures of the criminal legal system.
Supreme Court

By Josie Duffy Rice

https://ballsandstrikes.org/scotus/wooden-v-united-states/

Posted by: Joe | Oct 5, 2021 8:22:30 PM

Key red flag as Sotomayor finally got around to wondering about is how this guy is an "Armed Career Criminal."

Posted by: Joe | Oct 5, 2021 9:02:24 PM

Rice's piece is quite good and I will likely to a post on it.

Posted by: Doug B | Oct 5, 2021 10:50:16 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB