Eastern District of Pennsylvania Weighs in on Section 302 Commitments and Firearm Possession under Federal and Pennsylvania Law
In 2019, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued two opinions discussing the prohibition of firearm ownership under federal and Pennsylvania laws after an individual has been subject to involuntary examination and observation under Section 302 of Pennsylvania’s Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA).
Section 302 of MHPA allows for temporary emergency commitment of an individual who is severely mentally disabled and in need of immediate treatment for up to 120 hours. An individual is severely mentally disabled if within 30 days prior to the commitment he or she has inflicted or attempted to inflict serious bodily harm on another or on himself or herself. After the 120 hours, the individual must be released or be subject to involuntary commitment procedures with the court of common pleas.
In Doe I v. Evanchick, 355 F.Supp. 3d 197 (E.D. Pa. 2019), the plaintiffs filed a due process action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act’s (PUFA) provision banning individuals who have been temporarily committed under Section 302 of the MHPA from purchasing or possessing firearms, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(a). 355 F. Supp. 3d at 198. Any individual temporarily committed under Section 302 must be reported to the Pennsylvania State Police, who is then responsible for reporting the commitment to the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, state firearms background check database and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Once in these systems, the individual is prohibited from possessing, using, controlling, selling or transferring firearms in Pennsylvania.
The plaintiffs asserted that the law resulted in an indefinite loss of their Second Amendment rights to purchase and possess firearms. The court found that Pennsylvania law provides for three post-deprivation remedies for individuals seeking to lift the restrictions as a result of a Section 302 commitment. First, under PUFA, an individual can file a petition in the court of common pleas, asserting that he is no longer mentally ill and should be allowed to own a gun. 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(f)(1). This statute provides for a full evidentiary hearing in front of a common pleas judge. Second, an individual can seek to expunge the Section 302 commitment by challenging the sufficiency of the evidence on which the commitment was based under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6111.1(g)(2). The first two options would result in removal of the Section 302 commitment from the individual’s background and the listed databases. Third, an individual may submit a challenge to the accuracy of his mental health record with the state police under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6111.1(e). The determination by the state police is appealable to the Office of the Attorney General. Further appeal is available in the Commonwealth Court.
The judge in Doe I found that the plaintiffs were not entitled to a pre-deprivation hearing prior to the entry of the commitment into the various databases. The judge found that the three post-deprivation remedies adequately protected the plaintiffs and other Section 302 committees’ rights under the Second Amendment and the Due Process Clause. The plaintiffs appealed this ruling, and the Third Circuit has listed the appeal for consideration on the merits.
In Wilborn v. Barr, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13334 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 8, 2019), the plaintiff, Brandon Wilborn, challenged whether a Section 302 commitment was a sufficient adjudication or commitment under federal law to prohibit his ownership or purchase of a firearm. Federal law prohibits the purchase or ownership of a firearm by anyone who has been adjudicated a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). The court found that a Section 302 commitment was not an adjudication of a mental defect or a commitment due to the fact that a Section 302 commitment does not have an adversarial component, where there is an actual determination of the individual’s mental state. The court also found that the temporary observational nature of a Section 302 commitment does not rise to the level of an actual commitment to a mental health facility. Thus, the court found that a Section 302 commitment is not sufficient to deny possession or purchase of a firearm under federal law.
There are a few implications of these rulings. An individual can still be denied possession, ownership, or purchase of a firearm in Pennsylvania if he or she has been committed under Section 302 of the MHPA. It is anticipated that the Third Circuit will uphold the Eastern District’s ruling in Doe I v. Evanchick. The Wilborn ruling does not impact the operations of law enforcement or firearms retailers in Pennsylvania when a Section 302 commitment appears in a background check. The interesting implications are how these commitments will be handled by other states since it has been held that a Section 302 commitment is not sufficient under the federal law. If an individual who has been committed pursuant to Section 302 moves to another state, the individual’s ability to possess a firearm will be subject solely to that state’s firearms laws since the federal law does not prohibit ownership.
Recently, on August 16, 2019, Governor Wolfe issued an Executive Order aimed at reducing gun violence. This order appointed a senior advisor for gun violence prevention to work with the Commonwealth gun reform agenda, and it created a commission and division aimed at reducing gun violence and improving data related to gun violence. The changes that come out of this Executive Order could further impact gun possession laws in Pennsylvania.
*Allison is an associate in our Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania office. She can be reached at 412.803.3475 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 25, No. 4, December 2019 is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2019 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.