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Haron v. Pennsylvania State Police

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

September 19, 2017

Michael Haron, Petitioner
Pennsylvania State Police, Respondent

          Submitted: January 27, 2017




         Presently before this Court is the application of Michael Haron (Haron) for summary relief in relation to a petition for review he filed against the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) alleging that the PSP willfully failed to completely and accurately maintain his criminal history record information in violation of section 9111 of the Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA), 18 Pa.C.S. §9111.

         Facts and Procedural History

         A. Haron's 1991 Conviction

         The following facts are garnered from the pleadings in this matter and are largely undisputed. On May 21, 1991, Haron was stopped in his vehicle by the Allentown Police Department. At the time he was pulled over, Haron had a BB gun in his possession as well as a small amount of marijuana. Haron was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in violation of section 13(a)(31) of The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Drug Act), Act of April 14, 1972, P.L. 233, as amended, 35 P.S. §§780-113(a)(31), and carrying a loaded weapon other than a firearm in violation of section 6106.1(a) of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995 (UFA), 18 Pa.C.S. §6106.1(a).[1], [2] Haron later pleaded guilty to a violation of section 6106.1(a) of the UFA and the marijuana possession charge was dismissed. Section 6106.1(b) of the UFA, 18 Pa.C.S. §6106.1(b), describes a violation of this section as a summary offense.

         Though the exact date is in dispute, i.e., either late February or early March 2014, Haron attempted to purchase a firearm.[3] However, Haron's attempt was denied after PSP's Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS) returned a criminal history result for Haron that indicated he was prohibited from purchasing a firearm because of a 1991 conviction for violating section 6106 of the UFA, 18 Pa.C.S. §6106 (carrying a firearm without a license). Section 6106 describes this offense as a felony of the third degree for anyone who does not have a license, but reduces the offense to a misdemeanor of the first degree if the person is otherwise eligible to possess a valid license. See 18 Pa.C.S. §6106(a)(1), (2).

         B. Haron's PICS Challenge

          Haron subsequently filed a PICS challenge on a form designated by PSP, the date of which is unclear in the pleadings. By letter dated March 12, 2014, PSP confirmed the denial of Haron's purchase of a firearm on the basis that his "1991 conviction for Firearm Carried without a License [was] prohibiting."[4] See Exhibit B to Haron's Complaint. PSP attached to this letter a printout reflecting a date of arrest of May 21, 1991, a local docket number of C2474135, and charges reflecting "FIREARM CARRIED WITHOUT A LICENSE" and "VIOLATION OF CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE, DRUG, DEVICE, AND COSMETIC ACT." Id. Indeed, PSP's Central Repository reflected that Haron pleaded guilty to a violation of section 6106, graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree. See Exhibit C to Haron's Complaint. In its March 12, 2014 letter, PSP advised Haron that he had thirty days to submit documentation challenging the denial.

         By letter dated March 18, 2014, Haron advised PSP that its information was incorrect because in 1991 he was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, possession of a weapon other than a firearm, which he incorrectly described as a misdemeanor of the first degree, [5] and was not charged with carrying a firearm without a license. Haron attached to this letter a copy of his original citation, which was partly illegible, as well as a notice of hearing which identified his charges as "POSSESSION OF SMALL AMOUNT CRY LOAD WEAP OTH THA FRARM." See Exhibit A of PSP's Answer to Haron's Petition for Summary Relief.

         By letter dated April 3, 2014, PSP responded that it was in receipt of the additional documentation that Haron submitted, that said documentation had been reviewed, and that its decision denying his challenge was upheld. PSP again referenced Haron's purported 1991 conviction for carrying a firearm without a license as being prohibitive. This letter further advised Haron that he could file an appeal within thirty days with the Office of Attorney General, Regulatory Compliance & Intelligence Section (hereafter OAG). Haron thereafter obtained counsel, who required a retainer fee of $1, 500.00, and subsequently filed an appeal with OAG on April 21, 2014. Haron alleged that the same documentation he previously provided to PSP in the course of his PICS challenge was attached to his OAG appeal; however, none of the documentation relating to Haron's OAG appeal is included in the record before this Court.

         On April 28, 2014, Haron's counsel received a voicemail message from PSP acknowledging that its records were incorrect, the same had been corrected, Haron was not prohibited from purchasing a firearm, and that no further documentation would be forthcoming. Nevertheless, PSP alleges that it sent Haron a letter dated May 27, 2014, acknowledging the same, but Haron and his counsel deny ever receiving the same. The appeal before OAG proceeded with the appointment of an administrative law judge (ALJ) to hear the matter. At an October 22, 2014 hearing before the ALJ, PSP stipulated that its records incorrectly reflected that Haron had been convicted under section 6106, rather than 6106.1, of the UFA, and that he was not prohibited from purchasing a firearm. Hence, by order dated December 4, 2014, the ALJ granted Haron's appeal.

         C. Haron's Complaint

         In the meantime, on July 24, 2014, as his appeal was pending before the OAG, Haron filed a complaint with the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County (trial court). In this complaint, Haron alleged that PSP violated section 9111 of CHRIA by inaccurately recording and maintaining his past criminal history record information as including a 1991 conviction for violating section 6106, instead of 6106.1 of the UFA. Haron also alleged that PSP added a grading to this conviction of a misdemeanor of the first degree. Because section 6106.1 is a summary offense and not graded, and section 6106 includes two possible gradings, Haron argued that PSP's entry of a specific grading was "highly suggestive of the willful and intentional nature of the inaccurate recordkeeping." (Haron's Complaint at ¶33.)

         Haron also argued that PSP ignored the documentation he provided in an attempt to correct the information maintained by PSP and only acknowledged the same after he had obtained counsel and initiated further legal action by filing an appeal with OAG. However, even after acknowledging the same, Haron noted that PSP refused to issue any statement in writing regarding the inaccuracy of its records or the correction of the same. Haron sought a judgment from the trial court declaring that PSP was in violation of CHRIA and that said violation was willful; enjoining PSP from denying his purchase of a firearm based on his 1991 conviction; requiring PSP to issue written confirmation and evidentiary proof of the correction of his record; awarding him compensatory, statutory, and punitive damages; and awarding him reasonable attorney fees and costs.

         On October 2, 2014, counsel for PSP filed preliminary objections alleging that the trial court lacked jurisdiction, that Haron failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, and that the matter was moot as it sent Haron a letter dated May 27, 2014, notifying him that he was no longer prohibited from purchasing a firearm. Haron filed a motion to strike PSP's preliminary objections, but the motion was denied by the trial court. By order dated December 1, 2014, the trial court sustained PSP's preliminary objections to mootness with respect to Haron's claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, but overruled PSP's preliminary objections with respect to any claims for monetary damages, attorney fees, and costs. The trial court further sustained PSP's preliminary objection relating to jurisdiction, and transferred jurisdiction over the remaining monetary damages claims to this Court.

         D. Transfer of Complaint to this Court

         Upon transfer here, we directed PSP to file an answer to Haron's complaint (subsequently designated as a petition for review). PSP filed an answer denying the material allegations of Haron's petition for review, noting that it relies on information received from arresting agencies and dispositions from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts in maintaining a defendant's criminal history record information. PSP also noted that it requested further information on Haron's firearms conviction from the local common pleas court but that court stated it had no information regarding the same. PSP did admit in its answer that it mistakenly sent the April 3, 2014 denial letter to Haron, but stated that it corrected his record as of April 28, 2014, and sent a letter dated May 27, 2014, advising of this correction. Further, PSP denied that Haron was deprived of a fundamental right or that its actions were willful or intentional.

         In new matter, PSP averred that the matter was moot because the relief Haron requested has been provided. PSP noted that it had sixty days under section 9152(d) of CHRIA, 18 Pa.C.S. §9152(d), to review a challenge to the accuracy of a criminal record, that Haron provided corrective information dated March 18, 2014 (which was not received until March 20, 2014), and that it orally notified Haron's counsel of a correction on April 28, 2014, followed by written correspondence dated May 27, 2014. PSP indicated that the oral notice to Haron's counsel was provided within this sixty-day window, but the written correspondence was not provided within this timeframe. Finally, PSP averred that Haron had not shown that any injury occurred to him between March 18, 2014, and April 28, 2014, and, therefore, he was not entitled to damages under section 9183 of CHRIA, 18 Pa.C.S. §9183.

         In an answer to this new matter, Haron responded that the matter was not moot, noting the trial court's previous ruling on this issue. Haron also noted that his requests for monetary damages, reasonable attorney fees, and costs remain outstanding. Haron stated that, despite PSP's April 28, 2014 voicemail, PSP refused to provide written confirmation of the correction of his records. Haron specifically denied receipt of PSP's May 27, 2014 letter. Finally, Haron responded that he suffered damages for the time period from March 18, 2014, through October 22, 2014, the date of the ALJ's hearing.

         E. Haron's Petition for Summary Relief

         On May 13, 2016, Haron filed the present petition for summary relief pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure (Pa.R.A.P.) 1532(b). In this petition, Haron notes that PSP admits to violating sections 9111 (requiring a criminal justice agency to maintain complete and accurate criminal history record information) and 9114 (requiring a criminal justice agency to correct its record within fifteen days of the detection of inaccurate data in a criminal history record, regardless of the manner of discovery) of CHRIA, 18 Pa.C.S. §§9111, 9114. Haron reiterates his allegation that PSP's violations were willful and deliberate. Haron alleges that its right to relief is clear, that there are no material issues of fact in dispute, and that the only issue that remains to be determined is the amount of damages to which he is entitled under section 9183 of CHRIA. Haron requests actual damages in the amount of $1, 500.00, attorney fees and costs in the amount of $9, 860.51, and punitive damages in the amount of $10, 000.00. At the same time, Haron submitted an affidavit as to the facts detailed above. Haron also submitted affidavits from two attorneys who provided him with legal representation, as well as statement of costs and attorney fees detailing the $9, 860.51 noted above.

         PSP filed an answer to this petition denying that Haron's right to relief is clear. PSP averred that Haron was not aggrieved or entitled to damages as a result of its maintenance of an incorrect criminal history record because, after his attempted purchase of a firearm was denied, Haron initiated a statutorily mandated administrative appeal process pursuant to section 6111.1(e) of the UFA, 18 Pa.C.S. §6111.1(e).[6] PSP noted that it ultimately reversed its decision less than two months later and prior to the need for a PICS administrative hearing. PSP also averred that Haron submitted no direct evidence that it acted in a willful manner justifying the imposition of punitive damages. To the contrary, PSP noted that the evidence of record indicates, at best, that it maintained an incorrect criminal history record, that the incorrect record caused Haron to initially be denied a purchase of a firearm, and that, after review of documentation submitted by Haron, it corrected its record and cleared Haron for a firearms purchase within the sixty days required by section 6111.1(e).

         In new matter, PSP averred that Haron's claims to entitlement of summary relief and damages for alleged violations of CHRIA are barred by sovereign immunity. PSP noted that Haron initially sought administrative relief under the UFA and did not pursue relief under sections 9151 and 9152 of CHRIA, 18 Pa.C.S. §§9151, 9152. Thus, PSP averred that CHRIA is inapplicable to this matter and Haron's claims for damages and attorney fees should be dismissed. PSP also ...

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