Supreme Court to Consider the Legal Consequences of Multiple Instances of Criminal Misconduct

Not an immigration case, but could have immigration consequences

By Dan Cadman on October 15, 2021

In its current term, the Supreme Court will be considering a case that, on its surface, has no nexus to immigration expulsion laws, but may very well be applicable. Bear with me a moment as I make the connection.

The case is Wooden v. United States and it involves the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The ACCA, codified at 18 U.S.C. 924(e), requires judges to impose a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence for:

a person who violates section 922(g) of this title and has three previous convictions by any court referred to in section 922(g)(1) of this title for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both, committed on occasions different from one another. [Emphasis added.]

The Court has considered the reach of the ACCA before, with regard to the meaning of violent felonies (see, e.g., a Congressional Research Service paper found here), but it is the phrase “committed on occasions different from one another” that is the crux of the legal issue that the Court will be considering this term.

The case has been examined several times by SCOTUSblog (most recently here), but to provide the briefest of summaries: William Dale Wooden, the plaintiff, was charged and sentenced as a career criminal based on a series of burglaries he committed of 10 different units within a mini-storage facility, for which he pleaded guilty. Wooden argues that the thefts should be considered as a single occasion; the government argues in essence that each burglary required its own mens rea, its own moment of thought and deliberative choice in deciding whether to engage in misconduct, and therefore should be considered separately.

What is the connection between the outcome of this case and federal immigration law? It is this: Section 237(a)(2)(A)(ii) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), codified at 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1227(a)(2)(A)(ii), provides that:

Any alien who at any time after admission is convicted of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude, not arising out of a single scheme of misconduct, regardless of whether confined therefore and regardless of whether the convictions were in a single trial, is deportable. [Emphasis added.]

Although the language is not identical, clearly the same issue is at play: When are multiple crimes part of an overarching “scheme” (or “occasion” in the case of the ACCA), and when should each crime count toward a federal penalty, whether that penalty is enhanced sentencing for a career criminal, or removal for a criminal alien?

In the immigration context, the meaning of the phrase has been the subject of considerable litigation, from the administrative level up to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and also within the federal district and circuit courts. A quick internet search of the phrase “single scheme of misconduct circuit courts” will provide a plethora of decisions, not all of which are harmonious in arriving at what constitutes a single scheme. It is entirely possible that the Court, when it rules on the Wooden case, will provide guidance that is equally applicable to both the ACCA and the INA.