The federal “three strikes” law provides enhanced penalties for felons who possess firearms after three convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses “committed on occasions different from one another.” What exactly is an “occasion”?
Wooden v. United States, No. 20-5279, taken up by the Supreme Court today, is one of the rare cases where a defendant writing his own certiorari petition actually got the Court to take the case up for full briefing and argument.
However, the Court passed on the issue that Wooden emphasized most, a Fourth Amendment question. Instead, it limited the issue to Wooden’s second question. As framed by Wooden, it is:
Did the Sixth Circuit err by expanding the scope of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1) in the absence of clear statutory definition with regard to the vague term “committed on occasions different from one another”?
See update at end.
This presents intertwined questions of interpretation of the statute and constitutionality of it under the “void for vagueness” rule. Declaring a statute unconstitutional is a drastic step, and the Court should, and normally does, try to give it constitutional interpretation first.
Breaking into 10 different units at a self-storage place is 10 counts of burglary under Georgia law. That seems reasonable, given 10 separate breakings and 10 separate entries to steal the possessions of 10 separate victims. But if they are done one after another is that 10 different occasions for the purpose of the recidivist statute? That seems like a stretch.
Unlike the decisions striking down the “residual clause” in several definitions of “violent felony,” see United States v. Davis (2019), declaring the “occasions” clause to be unconstitutionally vague would present a very difficult problem of severability. How could that be stricken without bringing down the whole law?
Of course, bringing down the whole law is exactly the result that those whose oppose giving criminals their just deserts seek. But is the Court willing to remove the penalty across the board, including exactly the kind of case Congress had in mind, the career criminal who commits multiple violent crimes over an extended period? I doubt it. A saving construction is more likely.
Update (4/16): The above discussion of the constitutional question was written based on Wooden’s un-lawyered petition for writ of certiorari and the government’s response. Wooden subsequent obtained counsel. The lawyer-written reply to the government’s brief in opposition downplays the constitutional attack and focuses on the statutory interpretation question.
That is much better strategy, in my opinion. They might even win the case with that argument.