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Bell v. United States

United States District Court, Third Circuit

October 24, 2013




Plaintiff Aaron L. Bell brings this pro se civil action against the United States of America, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the City of Philadelphia. Bell alleges he was improperly convicted of a felony in state court and, as a convicted felon, he is prohibited from possessing a firearm and body armor in violation of his constitutional rights. He seeks to proceed in forma pauperis. For the following reasons, the Court will grant Bell leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismiss his complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) & (ii).


In 2003, Bell was convicted of robbery and conspiracy in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and sentenced to a term of five to ten years of imprisonment. Documents attached to the complaint reflect that Bell and another man entered a Kentucky Fried Chicken where Bell had worked, pointed guns at the employees, and demanded money from the store safe. Bell claims that his convictions were based on judicial misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, and errors at trial, including errors stemming from counsel's ineffectiveness. He filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state court and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, both of which were denied. According to Bell, the judges who resolved those petitions were corrupt and incorrectly denied him relief. In the federal proceeding, Bell also unsuccessfully sought a certificate of appealability from the Third Circuit and filed for relief from judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b).

In April 2012, Bell finished serving his sentence in its entirety. He seeks to obtain a firearm and/or body armor due to several recent incidents in his neighborhood that have made him feel unsafe, but he cannot do so without running afoul of federal and state statutes that criminalize the possession of those items by convicted felons. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) & 931; 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 6105 & 6106. In this action, Bell challenges the constitutionality of those statutes pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, he asserts challenges under the Second Amendment, Eighth Amendment, Ninth Amendment, Tenth Amendment, and the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; he also claims that the statutes constitute unconstitutional bills of attainder.[1] He also attacks the constitutionality of his state convictions pursuant to the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651.


As Bell has satisfied the criteria set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1915, he is granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Accordingly, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) applies and requires the Court to dismiss the complaint if, among other things, it is frivolous or fails to state a claim.

A complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact, " Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), and is legally baseless if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory." Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995). Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under § 1915(e) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), see Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999), which requires the Court to determine whether the complaint contains "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).


A. Constitutional Challenges to § 922(g)(1)

Bell asserts that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which prohibits the possession of firearms by individuals who have been convicted of"a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, " violates his Second Amendment rights.[2]The Third Circuit has held § 922(g)(1) is constitutional on its face. United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168, 170 (3d Cir. 2011); see also District ofColumbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 626 (2008) ("[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons.... "). However, a plaintiff could still succeed on an "as applied" challenge to the statute if he "present[s] facts about himself and his background that distinguish his circumstances from those of persons historically barred from Second Amendment protections." Barton, 633 F.3d at 174.

From a historical perspective, "the common law right to keep and bear arms did not extend to those who were likely to commit violent offenses." Id. at 173. In that regard, individuals who have committed violent felonies have traditionally been excluded from the right to bear arms. Id. at 173-74. Here, Bell was convicted of a violent felony committed with the use of a firearm, and only recently finished serving his sentence for that conviction. Accordingly, his as-applied challenge fails because the "traditional justifications underlying the statute support a finding of permanent disability in [his] case." Id. at 173; see also United States v. Williams, 616 F.3d 685, 693 (7th Cir. 2010) ("The fact that Williams was convicted of a violent felony defeats any claim he has that § 922(g)(1) is not substantially related to preventing him from committing further violence.").

Bell also alleges § 922(g)(1) violates his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. First, he asserts substantive due process claims under a "special relationship" theory and a "state-created danger" theory based on his allegations that, as a result of the government's restriction on his ability to possess a firearm and its corresponding failure to provide him police protection, he is defenseless against local criminals who have put him in fear of his life.

Bell's "special relationship" theory fails because, to prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff generally must establish some form of"custodial relationship." Sanford v. Stiles, 456 F.3d 298, 304 n.4 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 167 (3d Cir. 2013)(en banc)(holding the special relationship exception "applies when a special relationship has been established because the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will" (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). Nor can Bell prevail on a "state-created danger" theory. Notably, it is Bell's own actions (i.e., those leading to his conviction), that rendered him ineligible to possess a firearm. Furthermore, the government's failure to provide Bell with police protection can hardly be characterized as an "affirmative act" that creates a danger for Bell. See Morrow, 719 F.3d at 178-79. In any event, any action by the government is not a fairly direct cause of any harm that has befallen Bell at the hands of third parties. See Henry v. City of Erie, 728 F.3d 275, 285 (3d Cir. 2013) ("To fulfill ...

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