Explainer: The Supreme Court Decision in Wooden v United States
Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in a case called Wooden v United States. While you might be thinking about other cases before the Supreme Court like those involving abortion, gerrymandering and other hot-button political issues, the Wooden v United States decision is a big one for criminal justice reform. That’s because it has an impact on mandatory-minimum sentences.
What is the Armed Career Criminal Act?
In the 1980s, there was a dramatic shift toward “tough on crime” policies. The number of people in prison went up. The length of prison sentences got longer. And “law and order” (not the TV show) became an American ideal. The Armed Career Criminal Act was part of that movement.
Under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), people who have been convicted of a felony can’t possess a firearm. Most states have similar laws, too. These are commonly referred to as “felon in possession” crimes.
If you violate the “felon in possession” law in general, the most prison time you can face is ten years. But, under 18 U.S.C. § 922(e)(1), if you have three prior convictions on “occasions different from one another,” the least prison time you can face is 15 years.
That huge jump is what’s known as a mandatory minimum. If your crime comes with a mandatory minimum, there is a certain amount of time you have to spend in prison no matter what. Even if a judge doesn’t believe you deserve thatch time in prison, they still have to order it.
What happened in Wooden v United States?
In Wooden v United States, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the defendant, William Dale Wooden, had three prior convictions on “occasions different from one another.” If he didn’t, he faced around two years in prison. But, if he did, that time in prison would jump to more than 15 years.
In the 1990s, Wooden and three others broke into a storage facility and stole items from ten separate storage units. They did it all in one night and at one location. But the government argued that the break-in for each separate unit constituted “occasions different from one another” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
The two lower courts that heard Wooden’s case (a U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit) agreed with the government. Even though the break-ins occurred on one night and at one location, those courts said, each storage unit started an occasion different from the others. Therefore, those courts ruled, Wooden was a “career criminal.”
The Supreme Court disagreed. In a 9-0 decision (every justice agreed), the Court ruled that even though Wooden broke into multiple storage units, “[t]hey … count only once under the ACCA.” According to the Court, it’s clear “that multiple crimes may occur on one occasion even if not at the same moment.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Wooden v United States is an important one. It stops prosecutors from asking judges to treat people with just one day of criminal activity in their past as “career criminals.” It also protects accused people from “tough on crime” mandatory minimums that often leave people behind bars way longer than judges would otherwise.