High court narrows reach of law targeting career criminals

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen Monday, June 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday narrowed the reach of a federal law that strengthens penalties for career criminals found to illegally have a gun.

The high court was ruling in the case of a man a lower court classified as a career criminal after counting the man’s burglary of 10 different public storage units on a single evening as 10 separate offenses. The high court said unanimously Monday that was an error.

The man's 10 burglary convictions should have been treated as one event rather than separate crimes when considering whether he qualified for a stiffened sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, the justices concluded.

Without the stronger sentence, the man's recommended sentence would have been approximately two years, but he was instead sentenced to nearly 16.

“Convictions arising from a single criminal episode ... can count only once under ACCA,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote.

The decision could result in reduced sentences for other people subject to stronger sentences under the law. According to a U.S. Sentencing Commission report, however, people classified as armed career criminals have recently made up less than one percent of those sentenced every year for federal offenses.

The Armed Career Criminal Act requires a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone found to have a gun after three or more previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. The law says that each of the offenses must have been “committed on occasions different from one another.”

Kagan wrote that a single “occasion” can include distinct activities, citing the example of multiple events occurring on a couple's wedding day.

“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,” she said. "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 ... encompass a number of non-simultaneous activities."

The case before the justices involved William Dale Wooden. Wooden had a lengthy criminal history and was convicted in 2018 in Tennessee of being a felon in possession of a firearm. A judge concluded he should qualify for the Armed Career Criminal Act's sentencing “enhancement.” That conclusion was based on a 2005 burglary conviction and the fact that he had pleaded guilty in 1997 to 10 counts of burglary for joining in the burglary of 10 units at a ministorage facility in Dalton, Georgia.

Wooden argued the burglaries should count as one conviction, but lower courts disagreed.

“We’re delighted the Supreme Court agrees that Mr. Wooden is not an armed career criminal and never should have been subject to a fifteen-year mandatory-minimum sentence,” Wooden's attorney Allon Kedem wrote in an email.

Kedem said that the government had previously agreed that his recommended a sentence had he not qualified for a stronger sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act was about two years and he has already served much more than that. Kedem said that “once he is resentenced, we expect him to be sent back home to his family.”

The Armed Career Criminal Act has been the subject of frequent litigation before the Supreme Court.