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Navarro v. Pennsylvania State Police

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

July 17, 2019

RICHARD D. NAVARRO, Appellee
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE, Appellant

          SUBMITTED: March 18, 2019

          Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court dated May 17, 2018 at No. 1433 CD 2017 Vacating the Order of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General Administrative Law Judge at No. FAD 01410, dated August 15, 2017 and Remanding.

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ

          OPINION

          DOUGHERTY JUSTICE

         We consider whether, when denying the return of a firearm on the basis of a federal statute, specifically 18 U.S.C. §922(g), the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP") must establish the subject firearm moved in interstate or foreign commerce. We answer that question in the affirmative and, accordingly, affirm the order of the Commonwealth Court remanding the matter for further proceedings.

         In 2012, a firearm was stolen from appellee Richard D. Navarro. In November 2013, as a result of appellee's alterations to a prescription for Percocet tablets, he pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery graded as first-degree misdemeanors and the court sentenced him to twenty-four months' probation.[1] Sometime thereafter, appellee learned PSP had recovered his stolen firearm and he submitted an application for its return pursuant to Pennsylvania's Uniform Firearms Act ("UFA"), 18 Pa.C.S. §§6101-6128. See 18 Pa.C.S. §6111.1(b)(4) ("The Pennsylvania State Police and any local law enforcement agency shall make all reasonable efforts to determine the lawful owner of any firearm confiscated or recovered . . . and return said firearm to its lawful owner if the owner is not otherwise prohibited from possessing the firearm."). Although the UFA expressly precludes persons who are convicted of certain enumerated crimes from possessing firearms, forgery is not an enumerated crime under the UFA and no other precluding classifications exist under Pennsylvania law to bar appellee from firearm possession. See id. at §6105(b), (c) (enumerating specific prohibiting offenses and persons). However, PSP denied the application because a Pennsylvania Instant Check System ("PICS") report indicated appellee had disqualifying convictions under federal law.

         Appellee challenged the denial, and by letter dated December 23, 2016, PSP confirmed denial was based on federal law. Specifically, PSP relied on Section 922(g) of the Federal Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C. §§921-931 ("GCA"), which makes it unlawful for any person "who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce." 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). PSP further explained appellee's 2013 forgery convictions - punishable by up to five years' imprisonment - were "prohibiting" under Section 922(g).

         Appellee timely appealed the PSP determination to the Office of the Attorney General ("OAG"), and at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), the Commonwealth presented evidence that appellee's guilty pleas to two counts of forgery were confirmed by the PICS report. Additionally, a PICS supervisor testified the denial of appellee's request for return of the firearm was upheld on the basis of "the federal law, 18 U.S.C., Subsection 922(g) for his conviction of forgery." N.T. 7/7/17, at 13. Notwithstanding the ALJ's failure to make any findings regarding whether the firearm had "been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce," the ALJ affirmed the PSP's decision to deny return of appellee's firearm based on Section 922(g) of the GCA. Findings And Reasons For Denial of Request for Relief, 8/21/17 at 2 (unpaginated original). Appellee then filed a timely appeal to the Commonwealth Court.

         The Commonwealth Court vacated and remanded for further factual findings. Navarro v. Pa. State Police, No. 1433 C.D. 2017, unpublished memorandum at 1 (Pa. Cmwlth. filed May 17, 2018). The panel first acknowledged that, before returning a firearm to its owner pursuant to UFA procedures, PSP has a duty under Section 6111.1 to review the criminal history of "potential transferees" and determine whether such person is prohibited from receipt or possession of a firearm under federal or state law. Id. at 2-3, citing 18 Pa.C.S. §6111.1 (PSP shall review criminal history and fingerprint records to determine if potential purchaser or transferee is prohibited from receipt or possession of a firearm under Federal or State law). The panel next recognized PSP's denial in this case was based on federal law, and explained Section 922(g) of the federal GCA requires "proof of two things: (1) a disqualifying conviction, and (2) that the firearm in question was involved in interstate or foreign commerce." Id. at 4, citing 18 U.S.C. §922(g). The panel then determined, "per the language of the [federal] statute, without proof that the firearm sought to be purchased, possessed, or received moved in interstate commerce, GCA Section 922(g) would not apply regardless of whether or not the individual in question had a[n otherwise] disqualifying criminal offense." Id. The panel noted that although proof of an interstate or foreign commerce connection need not be extensive, it must nonetheless be present in some form to trigger application of Section 922(g) and prohibit return of appellee's firearm. Accordingly, because the ALJ made no findings with regard to the interstate or foreign commerce status of the firearm appellee requested be returned to him, the panel vacated the decision of the ALJ and remanded for further findings in that regard.

         We granted discretionary review based on PSP's petition for allowance of appeal.[2]PSP claims "the decision of the Commonwealth Court is both legally and practically untenable and must be reversed." Appellant's Brief at 15. Specifically, PSP challenges the panel's conclusion appellee could be denied return of his firearm only if PSP established the firearm "moved in interstate commerce." Navarro, supra, at 4. PSP insists no such proof is required and the only issue to be determined by the ALJ pursuant to Section 6111.1(e) of the UFA was "whether the record PSP relied upon is accurate." Appellant's Brief at 10-11. PSP relies on the language in Section 6111.1(e)(1) that any person denied the right to receive or possess a firearm as a result of "'the procedures established by this section may challenge the accuracy of that person's criminal history, '" and maintains the duty of the PSP under the statute is simply to "'conduct a review of the accuracy of the information forming the basis for the denial[.]'" Id. at 9-10, quoting 42 Pa.C.S. §6111.1(e)(1), (2) (emphasis added). PSP insists "[t]he statutory language in § 6111.1(e)(1) is unambiguous and its plain language controls[.]" Id. at 10, citing 1 Pa.C.S. §1921(b) ("[w]hen 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"); Shafer Elec. & Constr. v. Mantia, 96 A.3d 989, 994 (Pa. 2014) (courts should not add statutory requirements by interpretation). Thus, PSP argues it was only required to produce evidence at the hearing before the ALJ that the PICS record upon which it relied was accurate. PSP suggests, because the PICS report accurately indicated appellee had two forgery convictions, each punishable by up to five years in prison, PSP met its burden under Section 6111.1 that transfer to appellee was prohibited under Section 922(g)(1) of the federal GCA and was "not required to prove anything further." Id. at 12.[3]

         Moreover, PSP argues if the "Legislature had intended for PSP to prove, in some or all cases under [Section] 6111.1(e), whether a firearm moved in interstate or foreign commerce, it would have provided a mechanism for PSP to receive this information each time a background check is processed for the sale or transfer of a firearm." Id. PSP asserts, "nowhere in the UFA itself" are firearms dealers or law enforcement officers "required to report to PSP the make and model of a firearm for which a background check is being requested, at the time the check occurs." Id.[4] Thus, PSP argues, reading the sections of the UFA "in para materia . . . compels the conclusion that PSP is not required by the UFA to prove a firearm moved in interstate or foreign commerce." Id. PSP insists "the decision of the Commonwealth Court in this case effectively imposes that requirement upon the PSP (at least when federal law is at issue)." Id. at 13. In sum, PSP asserts "[t]he Commonwealth Court's decision effectively amends the statute by adding a new requirement not provided for by the plain language of the statute and places an additional evidentiary burden on the PSP, in contravention of the rules of statutory construction." Id.

         As to practical considerations, PSP maintains the panel's decision "is problematic due its potential impact on the PSP in their operation of PICS[, ]" because "PSP processes hundreds of thousands of checks through PICS each year[.]" Id. at 15. PSP argues, without elaboration or explanation, if it is required to "gather more information, such as the make and model of a firearm . . . (so that PSP can check if the firearm moved in interstate or foreign commerce)," the additional strain "on to an already strained system . . . could lead to more approvals made in error, i.e., more prohibited people gaining access to firearms." Id.

         In his pro se brief to this Court, [5] appellee argues if Section 6111.1 does not require the PSP "to conduct the commerce history of the firearm in question[, ]" the background check and verification procedures codified in the UFA violate principles of Due Process because the federal firearm prohibition requires proof of interstate or foreign commerce in order to be enforced. Appellee's Brief at 11.

         The parties agree the issue presented is a pure question of law. Accordingly, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. Commonwealth v. Bortz, 909 A.2d 1221, 1223 (Pa. 2006). We begin our analysis by recognizing that, under federal jurisprudence, in order to prove a violation of Section 922(g)(1) of the GCA - which prohibits any person "who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce" - the government must show the firearm's connection to interstate commerce. In United States v. Bass,404 U.S. 336 (1971), the United States Supreme Court analyzed the interstate commerce aspect of the predecessor statute to Section 922(g) of the GCA (then codified at 18 U.S.C. §1202(a) (repealed 1986)), which made guilty of a federal offense, any felon "who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce . . . any firearm[.]" 404 U.S. at 337, quoting 18 U.S.C. ยง1202(a). The High Court did not ...


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