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Commonwealth v. Anderson

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 23, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellant
v.
JASON ANDERSON

         Appeal from the Order Entered May 22, 2014 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0001233-2014

          BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., BOWES, J., PANELLA, J., SHOGAN, J., LAZARUS, J., OLSON, J., DUBOW, J., MOULTON, J., and SOLANO, J.

          OPINION

          SOLANO, J.

         The Commonwealth appeals from an order quashing two Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act ("PUFA")[1] charges against Appellee Jason Anderson, a private security guard. Anderson carried a firearm in Philadelphia without first obtaining a license for the firearm, although he did possess a certificate issued to him pursuant to the Lethal Weapons Training Act ("Act 235").[2] In this interlocutory appeal as of right, [3] the Commonwealth argues that Anderson's possession of his Act 235 certificate did not excuse him from the requirement of a license under the PUFA and that the trial court erred in quashing the charges on the basis of that certificate. We agree with the Commonwealth and hold that an Act 235 certificate does not serve as a substitute for a license under the PUFA. Accordingly, we reverse the order below and remand for further proceedings.

         The charges stem from an altercation on North Dewey Street in Philadelphia on November 3, 2013. Anderson was on his way home from his job as a private security guard, and he stopped at a party to pick up a friend who had asked him to take her home. He was wearing a bullet-proof vest and a security badge or lanyard around his neck, and he was carrying a gun; he stopped his car in the middle of the street. Meanwhile, Mark Ellis drove onto the street behind Anderson and stopped to drop off food at the home of a local resident, Syreeta Manire. After Manire retrieved the food, Ellis quickly proceeded to drive away. Anderson's car was blocking the street, and Ellis stopped a few feet behind it. Anderson and Ellis then exchanged words. Ellis pulled out a gun, and Anderson tried to grab that gun from him. Shots were fired, and Anderson shot and killed Ellis. A subsequent police investigation determined that Anderson was not licensed to carry a firearm, but that he did possess a valid Act 235 certificate. Trial Ct. Op., 9/24/14, at 2-3.

         The Commonwealth decided not to prosecute Anderson for any homicide-related charges stemming from the shooting. But on January 17, 2014, it charged Anderson with impersonating a police officer[4] and violating two provisions of the PUFA: Section 6106(a)(1), which prohibits carrying a firearm without a license, and Section 6108, which prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm on public streets or public property in Philadelphia.[5]

         On February 11, 2014, Anderson filed a motion to quash the PUFA charges. After hearing argument, the trial court granted Anderson's motion. In an opinion, the court explained that Act 235 requires private security guards to carry a certificate under the Act when "on duty or going to and from duty and carrying a lethal weapon, " and that, in the court's view, this constitutes "legislatively created permission to carry a firearm on the street while 'going to and from duty.'" Trial Ct. Op., 9/24/14, at 4-5. The court observed that penal statutes like the PUFA should be strictly construed, and it stated that "the special provisions in Act 235 prevail over general provisions in the [PUFA]" because they were the later provisions to be enacted. Id. at 5-6. Therefore, Anderson was "entitled to avail himself of Act 235's specific permission for him to be carrying a firearm at the time of his arrest" and could not be charged with violating the PUFA. Id. at 6.

         The Commonwealth timely appealed. A panel of this Court issued a memorandum decision that reversed without reaching the Act 235 issue that was the basis for the trial court's decision. Commonwealth v. Anderson, 2764 EDA 2014 (Pa. Super. July 21, 2016) (unpublished memorandum).[6] This Court then granted the Commonwealth's application for reargument en banc, withdrew the panel's decision, and received new briefs and argument.

         The Commonwealth presents the following question for review:

Did the [trial] court err in quashing charges under the Uniform Firearms Act based on its erroneous conclusion that certification under "Act 235" is a substitute for a license to carry a firearm?

         Commonwealth's Brief at 5. The Commonwealth claims it established a prima facie case for the PUFA violations based on its allegations that Anderson (1) carried a firearm in his car and in a concealed manner on his person, (2) was on a public street of Philadelphia, and (3) was not licensed under the PUFA. Id. at 16. The Commonwealth concedes Anderson possessed an Act 235 certificate, but argues that "Act 235 and the firearms licensing statutes - set forth in the [PUFA] - are separate regulatory schemes, and an individual who carries a firearm incident to employment is required to comply with both of them." Id. at 18 (emphasis in original).

         In response, Anderson concedes that an Act "235 [certificate] is not a substitute for a valid license to carry under [P]UFA when that individual is NOT on duty or going to and from duty." Anderson's Brief at 4 (unpaginated; capitalization in original). However, Anderson argues that an individual whose duty is to "protect moneys, valuables and other property, " does not violate Sections 6106(a)(1) and 6108 "when the individual is carrying out those duties" because the PUFA contains an exception for such individuals under Section 6106(b)(6). Id. He posits that "[t]he only logical reason for carrying [an Act 235] certificate is to show [it to] law enforcement while on duty and traveling to and from duty with a lethal weapon, which the individual is Act 235 certified [to do even though he] does not possess a valid license to carry under [P]UFA." Id. at 2-3. Thus, Anderson contends his Act 235 certificate is a "substitution" that "allows an individual who is [Act] 235 certified" but does not carry a valid license to nonetheless "carry a lethal weapon to and from" work. Id.

         The following principles govern our review:

The question of the evidentiary sufficiency of the Commonwealth's prima facie case is one of law as to which this Court's review is plenary.
At the pre-trial stage of a criminal prosecution, it is not necessary for the Commonwealth to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather, its burden is merely to put forth a prima facie case of the defendant's guilt. A prima facie case exists when the Commonwealth produces evidence of each of the material elements of the crime charged and establishes sufficient probable cause to warrant the belief that the accused committed the offense. The evidence need only be such that, if presented at trial and accepted as true, the judge would be warranted in permitting the case to go to the jury. Moreover, inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence of record which would support a verdict of guilty are to be given effect, and the evidence must be read in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth's case.

Commonwealth v. Nieves, 876 A.2d 423, 424 (Pa. Super.) (citations, brackets, and internal quotation marks omitted), appeal denied, 891 A.2d 731 (Pa. 2005). Here, whether the Commonwealth presented a prima facie case is dependent on whether the trial court correctly construed the statutes at issue. We have observed:

         In evaluating a trial court's application of a statute, our standard of review is plenary and is limited to determining whether the trial court committed an error of law. In making this determination, we are guided by the Statutory Construction Act, which dictates:

§ 1921. Legislative intent controls
(a) The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions.
(b)When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.
1 Pa.C.S. § 1921. As a general rule, the best indication of legislative intent is the plain language of a statute.

Commonwealth v. McFadden, 156 A.3d 299, 305 (Pa. Super. 2017) (internal quotation marks and some citations omitted). Our Supreme Court further instructed in Commonwealth v. Stotelmyer, 110 A.3d 146 (Pa. 2015):

Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions. We presume the legislature did not intend a result that is absurd, impossible, or unreasonable, and that it intends the entire statute to be effective and certain. When evaluating the interplay of several statutory provisions, we recognize that statutes that relate to the same class of persons are in pari materia and should be construed together, if possible, as one statute. If two statutes conflict, they are to be construed so effect may be given to both, if possible; if this is not possible, the special provision prevails over the general one as an exception to it, unless the general one was enacted later and there is manifest legislative intent that it prevail.

110 A.3d at 150 (quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Because this case involves the interplay between the PUFA and Act 235, we begin by surveying the terms of each statute.

         The PUFA. The PUFA has been a part of Chapter 61 of the Crimes Code since the Code's original enactment in 1972, [7] but its current form is the result of substantial amendments made in 1995.[8] In a preamble to the 1995 legislation, the General Assembly stated:

The General Assembly hereby declares that the purpose of this act is to provide support to law enforcement in the area of crime prevention and control, that it is not the purpose of this act to place any undue or unnecessary restrictions or burdens on law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, transfer, transportation or use of firearms, rifles or shotguns for personal protection, hunting, target shooting, employment or any other lawful activity, and that this act is not intended to discourage or restrict the private ownership and use of firearms by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes or to provide for the imposition by rules or regulations of any procedures or requirements other than those necessary to implement and effectuate the provisions of ...

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