Justices Spar Over How to Interpret the Armed Career Criminal Act

Today, the Supreme Court ruled Wooden v. Untied StatesThe Court was asked whether multiple offenses were committed simultaneously as part of a single crime spree. This is relevant for sentence enhancements under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Although the Court unanimously ruled that a crime spree was a “occasion”, even though it led to multiple convictions, they disagreed on how to reach there.

Justice Kagan submitted his opinion for the Court. The Chief Justice joined Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kavanaugh in total. Justices Thomas and Alito joined Barrett in all of Justice Kagan’s opinions (Part II B), which dealt with statutory history and purpose. Each Justice Kavanaugh, Sotomayor wrote their own concurring opinions. Justice Thomas joined Justice Barrett in a concurring opinion. Justice Sotomayor and Justice Gorsuch also filed concurring opinions in the judgment.

Justice Kagan briefly summarised the Court’s question, as well as its conclusion.

William Dale Wooden broke into ten storage units within a span of just one night. He later pleaded guilty, for that night’s work, to ten counts of burglar —one for each storage unit he had entered. The courts found that Wooden had been convicted of ten counts of burglary, one for each storage unit he entered. This conviction was enough to bring him under increased criminal sanctions as per the Armed Career Criminal Act. The statute provides for a minimum 15-year sentence for unlawful firearm possession if the offender has had three or more convictions for felonies, such as burglary. 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(1). It is unclear whether Wooden was convicted of offenses that occurred at different times, as the lower courts ruled, since each burglary took place at a separate time rather than concurrently. No. ACCA allows only one conviction for a single crime episode. Wooden’s was the exception.

Justice Kagan not only justified the result on textual grounds but also explained how statutory history, purpose and context supported it. Some of her coworkers were not happy with this part of the opinion.

Justice Barrett was joined by Justice Thomas to explain why she didn’t join Justice Kagan in the discussion about statutory history and purpose.

I join all but Part II–B of the Court’s opinion. The Court’s interpretation of “occasion” in its ordinary meaning and the conclusion that Wooden’s thefts count only once under Armed Career Criminal Act are both my views. However, I disagree with the Court’s conclusion that Congress has ratified Wooden’s short confession of error by the Solicitor General. United States v. Petty798 F.2d 1157, CA8 1986. It amended the Act in order to include the instances clause. Two flawed inferences are required to support this argument: First, Congress explicitly rejected the Eighth Circuit’s original decision in Petty; and secondly it adopted the arguments of the former SolicitorGeneral for why the decision was incorrect. Particularly, the latter error will likely cause problems down the road.

Then she said:

In glossing this statute the Court relies upon weak evidence regarding Congress’ motivation to amend the statute. Further evidence suggests that Congress adopted the arguments in the brief submitted by the SolicitorGeneral. The statute’s words are what I think Congress should be credited. Because of the statutory language, crimes within a spree similar to Wooden’s are not considered separate ACCA predicates. This is not because Petty’s or the SolicitorGeneral’s prose was in their minds when they drafted it.

Justice Gorsuch wrote an additional opinion, which was joined by Justice Sotomayor in all except one section. This concurred with the judgment. Justice Gorsuch stated that the Court should have based its decision on the rule o lunity.  He concludes his opinion

In cases under the Occasions Clause, it is crucial that the rule of lenity plays a vital role. It provides little direction and there may be some doubts regarding its applicability. They should be settled in favor of liberty when they arise. Today the Court doesn’t consult lenity’s rule but does not forbid lower courts from doing it in questionful cases. It is the only sound path. Punishments should not be imposed on the basis of any judicial conjecture or speculation. These should only be granted with the consent of elected representatives from the people and must also comply with laws that provide “fair warning”. . . To the entire world. McBoyle, 283 U. S., at 27.

Justice Sotomayor authored her concurring opinion, endorsing Justice Kagan’s Court opinion and Justice Gorsuch’s argument that the rule of Lenity must be applied the same way.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote, however, a concurring opinion to Justice Gorsuch. He argued against the rule of lenity being applied in these cases. This is his opinion.

Amid JUSTICE GORSUCH’s thoughtful concurring in the judgment I separate to explain why the rule o nit has played only a small role in the Court’s criminal case laws. And I further explain how another principle—the presumption of mens rea—can address JUSTICE GORSUCH’s important concern, which I share, about fair notice in federal criminal law. . . .

. . . Because a court has to exhaust all tools of statutory interpretation before it resorts to the rule-of-lenity and because such courts often decide the most accurate reading of the statute, rule of Lenity is rarely, if ever, used. The rule of lenity should be regarded as a “last” meaning that it will always come in last. D. Kahan, Lenity and Federal Common Law Crimes, 1994 S. Ct. Rev. 345, 386. That, in my view, is why the Court seldom relies upon the rule of lenity.

By making it more difficult to fulfill the ambiguity trigger, I wouldn’t upset our rule-of-lenity case law. One example is that I don’t believe any front-end ambiguity within the statute should be excused from resorting to rule of lenity, even if all other tools have been exhausted. The problem with this type of ambiguity trigger, however, is that it is subjective and difficult to determine objectively. An application with a lower front-end ambiguity trigger will only make the problem worse. This can lead to unpredictability and inconsistency in applications. B. Kavanaugh. Implementing Statutory Interpretation, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 2118, 2136–2139 (2016). . . .

I don’t want to invite inconsistency and unpredictability that might result from expanding rule of lenity outside its limited role in Court case law. But, I would continue to apply and, where necessary, expand mens-rea requirements vigorously. Justice Robert Jackson said that these are “as universally persistent and persistent” in mature legal systems as the belief in freedom and the consequent obligation of an individual to choose good over evil. . .