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Wilborn v. Barr

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 5, 2019

BRANDON M. WILBORN, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM BARR, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          SCHMEHL, J.

         Plaintiff Brandon Wilborn moves for summary judgment[1] against William Barr, Attorney General of the United States, Thomas E. Brandon, Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the United States of America (“Defendants”) (Docket No. 2).[2] Mr. Wilborn asserts that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), according to its text, does not permanently restrict an individual's ability to possess firearms based on a brief emergency mental health examination. Mr. Wilborn also asserts that his less-than-72-hour involuntary stay in a hospital for an involuntary emergency mental health examination under Section 302 of Pennsylvania's Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”) should not permanently deprive him from legally acquiring, possessing, or using a firearm in his private capacity.

         So, the central issues before this Court are: 1) whether an emergency mental health examination under Section 302 of the MHPA constitutes an “adjudication” or “commitment” for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4); and 2) whether Mr. Wilborn is subject to Section 922(g)(4) following his examination under Section 302. Based on the plain meaning of the terms in Section 922(g)(4) and the guidance provided by 27 C.F.R § 478.11, we conclude that a Section 302 commitment does not trigger Section 922(g)(4), and Mr. Wilborn's 2003 involuntary examination does not trigger Section 922(g)(4). We will not address the underlying constitutional issues or claims surrounding Section 302 of the MHPA.

         A. BACKGROUND

         Federal law prohibits possession of firearms by individuals previously adjudicated mentally ill or committed to a mental institution. Traditionally, mentally ill individuals were prohibited from possessing firearms because they were considered a danger to themselves and to others. Yet, “the right to possess arms (among those not properly disqualified) is no longer something that can be withdrawn by government on a permanent and irrevocable basis without due process.” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). Our Second Amendment jurisprudence is based on the Supreme Court's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller which guarantees an individual the right-not unlimited- to keep and bear arms. Heller, 554 U.S. at 595. But, Heller did not disrupt the longstanding prohibitions on possession of firearms by the mentally ill as this prohibition was considered presumptively lawful because it affected classes of individuals who, historically, have not had the right to keep and bear arms. Heller, 554 U.S. at 627 n.26; see also United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168, 171 (3d Cir. 2011) (listing of presumptively lawful regulation that reflects historical understanding of Second Amendment right), overruled on other grounds by Binderup v. Attorney General, 836 F.3d 336, 349-50 (3d Cir. 2016).

         On or about April 7, 2003, Mr. Wilborn was involuntarily examined and treated under Section 302 of the MHPA. (ECF Docket No. 1, ¶17.) Under the current law, Mr. Wilborn's examination, based only on the ex parte decision of a single physician, barred him from ever legally owning, possessing, using, or purchasing a firearm or ammunition. (Id. at ¶¶17-19.) According to Mr. Wilborn, and consistent with the proceedings of Section 302, Mr. Wilborn did not speak with a lawyer, present witnesses, submit evidence, or come before a neutral arbiter prior to his release. (ECF Docket No. 2, at 2.) On May 3, 2018, Mr. Wilborn attempted to purchase a firearm, but his application was denied by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”). (Id. at ¶20.) After Mr. Wilborn appealed the denial, NICS informed Mr. Wilborn that his application was denied under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) because of his 2003 examination under Section 302. (Id. at ¶21.)

         On August 23, 2018, Mr. Wilborn filed the instant action alleging he has “since abstained from attempting to purchase a firearm for fear of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and/or fine, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) . . . should he attempt to purchase or possess a firearm, based on the final determination from FBI.” (Id. at ¶27.) Mr. Wilborn's complaint sets forth a cause of action for injunctive and declaratory relief. Mr. Wilborn also moved for a preliminary injunction arguing he was “erroneously stripped of a constitutional right.” (ECF Docket No. 2, at 4.) Mr. Wilborn argues an involuntary examination and subsequent treatment under Section 302 of the MHPA “does not constitute an involuntary commitment for the purposes of the prohibition contained in 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4).” (Id. at 6.) In the alternative, Mr. Wilborn argues a commitment under Section 302 of the MHPA is insufficient under the Fifth Amendment-given the lack of due process-to trigger a disability under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). (Id. at 7.)

         As noted above, we will not address Mr. Wilborn's Second Amendment as-applied challenge and will only analyze whether a commitment under Section 302 of the MHPA is enough to trigger Section 922(g)(4) and whether Mr. Wilborn is subject to Section 922(g)(4) following his Section 302 examination.[3]

         B. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). On a motion for summary judgment, the court must consider the “underlying facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Slagle v. Cnty. of Clarion, 435 F.3d 262, 264 (3d Cir. 2006) (citations omitted). If the movant carries its initial burden of showing the basis of its motion, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and point to “specific facts showing that a genuine issue exists for trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). In other words, the non-moving party “must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue.” Podobnik v. US. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Summary judgment must be granted against a non-moving party who fails to sufficiently “establish the existence of an essential element of its case on which it bears the burden of proof at trial.” Blunt v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 767 F.3d 247, 265 (3d Cir. 2014).

         C. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Wilborn argues his involuntary examination and treatment under Section 302 of Pennsylvania's MHPA does not trigger a federal firearm prohibition under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). (ECF Docket No. 2, at 1.) Section 922(g)(4) prohibits the possession of firearms by anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) (emphasis added). More specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) states:

It shall be unlawful for any person ... who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution ... 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)(4) (emphasis added). We are required to determine: 1) whether an examination under Section 302 of the MHPA triggers Section 922(g)(4) which requires the individual be “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution”; and 2) whether Mr. Wilborn was ever “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” for purposes of Section 922(g)(4).[4]

         Looking at the text of Section 922(g)(4) and the Code of Federal Regulations, it is our view that a Section 302 examination under the MHPA does not trigger a Section 922(g)(4) prohibition, and the procedures of Section 302 of the MHPA as applied to Mr. Wilborn do not constitute an adjudication that Mr. Wilborn is a “mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution, ” thereby not implicating Section 922(g)(4)'s firearm restrictions.

         1. “Adjudicated as a Mental Defective” and “Committed to a Mental Institution” ...


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