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March 7, 2022

SCOTUS rules unanimously in favor of defendant in latest Armed Career Criminal Act ruling

The US Supreme Court handed down one opinion this morning, and it is a win for a federal criminal defendant in US v. Wooden, No. 20-5279 (S. Ct. March 7, 2022) (available here).  Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started:

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.

Interestingly, this ruling also generated four distinct concurrences (some quite short, some longer). Because I need to be off-line most of the rest of today, I will not have a chance to comment on these opinions right away. But I hope commenters might help me try to map out how many hundreds (thousands?) of cases this ruling could impact.

March 7, 2022 at 10:09 AM | Permalink


Doug, there was a discussion in here about a Fourth Circuit decision that went the other way. Perhaps you could dig it up and link to it.

Posted by: Federalist | Mar 7, 2022 10:20:51 AM

I have not yet had a chance to read through Wooden. Obviously, the Supreme Court's decision -- on the meaning of a federal statute -- is not binding on the states in interpreting state laws. I would assume that a lot of states have similar language in their recidivist enhancement statute. Does anybody know if there is a reliable source out there on how state courts have addressed this issue?

Posted by: tmm | Mar 7, 2022 10:39:21 AM

I missed the part of the opinion where the Court said this ruling can be applied retroactively.

Posted by: whatever | Mar 7, 2022 1:05:47 PM

lol, it's a statutory construction decision about ACCA's scope, of course it's retroactive.

Posted by: AFPD | Mar 7, 2022 1:59:05 PM

The ACCA is probably up there with ERISA as one of the worst-written statutes, with thousands of pages of case law interpreting its many ambiguities. The motivating idea wasn't bad: get armed career criminals off the streets for a super-duper-long time. Who could disagree with that? But defining exactly who qualifies, is not easy.

One wonders why this was even a federal case at all, when the conduct was entirely local, and frankly small-bore as well. I checked the cert. petition, and I see that the feds only stepped in after the state didn't prosecute. The decision doesn't say why, since the policy merits of the prosecution were not at issue. Perhaps there was a reason for federal involvement (other than, "they could") that isn't immediately apparent. On the face of it, though, it doesn't seem like a good use of federal government resources (and tax dollars).

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Mar 7, 2022 2:23:33 PM

Not sure what opinion you mean to reference, Federalist. Are you taking about the 11th Circuit ruling blogged here?:

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 8, 2022 8:32:22 AM

The case was about some dude who went hunting over a decade after convictions for commercial burglary. Guy got the hammer. Wilkinson wrote a concurrence that exulted the decision. I had some pretty harsh commentary.

Posted by: Federalist | Mar 8, 2022 10:48:02 AM

Maybe this one Federalist?


Posted by: atomicfrog | Mar 8, 2022 11:33:32 AM

Thank you atomicfrog

Posted by: Federalist | Mar 8, 2022 1:18:48 PM

Thanks AFPD. Working on a motion. What's the case cite that says a SCt decision interpreting a guideline is retroactive to cases not on direct appeal. Thank you.

Posted by: whatever | Mar 8, 2022 2:17:21 PM

Welch holds that 2015 Johnson, which also interpreted ACCA's scope, is retroactive.

Posted by: AFPD | Mar 9, 2022 11:08:02 AM

That's my point AFPD. The SCt had to announce the rule was retroactive. Which it didn't do here. Now there has to be litigation as to whether or not it's retroactive. Unless the USSC, if we ever get one, changes the guideline and makes the amendment retroactive.

Posted by: whatever | Mar 10, 2022 1:51:12 PM

This is not a guideline, AFPD, it is interpretation of the reach of the statute. There have been a number of setting in which limiting interpretations of a statute get applied retroactively. That said, many people impacted by the harsher/broader interpretation many not have a ready means to get back into court or may have already served longer than now would be allowed.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 10, 2022 3:16:26 PM

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