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Suarez v. Holder

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 18, 2015

JULIO SUAREZ, Plaintiff,
ERIC HOLDER, JR., et al., Defendants.


WILLIAM W. CALDWELL, District Judge.

I. Introduction

We are considering a motion to dismiss and cross-motions for summary judgment. This matter relates to a two count complaint in which Plaintiff asserts that Defendants have barred him from acquiring firearms in contravention of federal law and in violation of the United States Constitution. (Doc. 1). On October 20, 2014, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 12). In response, on November 13, 2014, Plaintiff filed his own motion seeking summary judgment. (Doc. 17). For the reasons discussed below, we will grant Defendants' motion to dismiss with respect to Count One, and we will grant Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment with respect to Count Two.

II. Background

On June 26, 1990, Julio Suarez was convicted in Montgomery County, Maryland of carrying a handgun without a license. (Doc. 1 at 2); see MD. CODE ANN., art. 27, § 36B(b).[1] The offense was a misdemeanor and subject to a term of imprisonment for not less than thirty days nor more than three years. (Doc. 1 at 2). Suarez was ultimately sentenced to 180 days imprisonment and a $500 fine, both suspended, and he was sentenced to one year probation. (Id.). Suarez's conviction, according to Defendants, places him within the scope of the Gun Control Act of 1968, see 18 U.S.C. § 921(g)(1), which bars individuals convicted of certain offenses from possessing a firearm. (Id. at 5). Therefore, Defendants' have prevented Suarez from possessing a firearm.

On May 20, 2014, Suarez (hereinafter Plaintiff) filed a complaint in which he announced that he intended to acquire firearms for self-protection and the protection of his family. (Doc. 1 at 1, 5). He first asserts that his conviction is statutorily excluded from the scope of the Gun Control Act; however, Defendants have misinterpreted the Act so as to include it. (Id. at 6). Therefore, in Count One of his complaint, Plaintiff argues that Defendants have wrongly enforced the Gun Control Act against him. (Id.). Accordingly, he asks us to issue a judgment declaring that he does not fall within the ambit of the Gun Control Act and to enjoin Defendants from continuing to enforce it against him. (Id.). In Count Two of his complaint, Plaintiff claims that even if he does fall within the bounds of the Gun Control Act, as applied to him, the Act violates the Second Amendment. (Id. at 7). Plaintiff again prays for injunctive and declaratory relief. (Id.).

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asserting that Plaintiff has failed to state a facially plausible claim. (Doc. 12). At the same time, Defendants filed an alternative motion for summary judgment, arguing that there is no issue of material fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. (Id.). Plaintiff, in turn, filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, claiming that the record evidence establishes that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. (Doc. 17). The issues have been extensively briefed by the parties, and the motions are ripe for our disposition.

III. Discussion

A. Motion to Dismiss

1. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes the dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Under Rule 12(b)(6), we must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008)). While a complaint need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim, " FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a)(2), and detailed factual allegations are not required, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "[L]abels and conclusions" are not enough, and a court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

2. Count One - Interpretation of The Gun Control Act of 1968

Codified at 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), The Gun Control Act dictates that it is unlawful for a person to possess a firearm if that person has been convicted "of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year...." 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). As defined by 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20)(B), however, "a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" does not include State misdemeanors that are "punishable by a term of imprisonment of two years or less." 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20)(B). The parties dispute the meaning of the word "punishable" as used in the exclusionary language of § 921(a)(20)(B). Plaintiff asserts that "punishable" means capable of being punished. And since the court was capable of imposing a sentence of two years or less on his misdemeanor conviction, he falls within the exclusion, and Defendants are wrongly enforcing the Act against him. Citing opinions from the Third Circuit and other courts of appeal, Defendants argue that because the maximum punishment that Plaintiff could have received on his firearm conviction was three years of imprisonment, Plaintiff's conviction was "punishable" by over two years. Therefore, he is not excluded by § 921(a)(20)(B) and falls within the plain language of § 922(g)(1)'s firearm prohibition. Accordingly, Defendants argue Plaintiff fails to state a claim in Count One. We agree.

"Statutory construction must begin with the language employed by Congress and the assumption that the ordinary meaning of that language accurately expresses the legislative purpose."[2] Engine Mfrs. Ass'n v. S. Coast Air Quality Mgmt. Dist., 541 U.S. 246, 252 (2004). The word Congress used in § 921(a)(20)(B) - punishable - generally means "[d]eserving of or capable or liable to punishment; capable of being punished by law or right." BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 1234 (6th ed. 1991); see also WEBSTER'S NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY 1842 (3d ed. 1961); accord Schrader v. Holder, 704 F.3d 980, 986 (D.C. Cir. 2013). But our analysis does not end with the bare meaning of the word in question. We must also look to the placement of the language in the statutory scheme. Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137, 145 (1995) (superseded on other grounds). "Ultimately, context determines meaning, and we do not force... definitions into contexts where they plainly do not fit and produce nonsense." Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 139-40 (2010) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Here, the word punishable is placed within a criminal statute, and together with a specified term of imprisonment, is used to identify which convictions disable individuals from possessing firearms and which convictions do not. 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(20)(B); 922(g)(1). There are myriad cases that have observed that in the context of criminal statutes, the words "punishable by, " together with a single specified term of imprisonment and no further modifiers, identifies the maximum punishment a court is capable of imposing.[3] We find the numerosity and consistency of these opinions an authoritative indication of the ordinary meaning of "punishable" in the context of § ...

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