In a surprising and unanimous decision issued yesterday in Navarro v. Pennsylvania State Police, 72 MAP 2018, 2019 WL 3209478, at *1 (Pa. July 17, 2019) – continuing a line of decisions from the Court where it has breathed new life into constitutional rights – the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that for the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) to deny an individual pursuant to an alleged federal firearms disability, the PSP must prove, in addition to the person being prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), that the firearm moved in interstate commerce.
In this case, Mr. Navarro represented himself pro se (i.e. without counsel) after the PSP refused to return a firearm to him that was recovered after being stolen. The basis for the PSP’s denial was that in 2013 Mr. Navarro pled guilty to forgery, which was a misdemeanor of the 1st degree in Pennsylvania and therefore triggered the general prohibition found in federal law, under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), of a crime punishable by more than one year. (As a side note, as few realize, a “crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) and excludes state law crimes, of a misdemeanor nature, that cannot be punished by more than two years. Secondly, it does not appear that Mr. Navarro challenged whether the federal prohibition was constitutional under an as-applied challenge, based on our recent successes in Miller v. Sessions and Holloway v. Sessions).
Although the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General originally upheld the denial/refusal, the Commonwealth Court vacated and reversed the decision finding that the PSP failed to establish that the firearm traveled in interstate commerce. The PSP, thereafter, appealed the decision and sought review by the PA Supreme Court.
After first determining that Mr. Navarro is not prohibited under state law, the Court turned to the PSP’s argument that the Commonwealth Court’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.”
The Court, in dismissing this argument, declared
Although we accept PSP’s contention the PICS system, as currently structured, contains no mechanism to quickly identify the manufacturer of any particular firearm, we conclude the potential lack of a computerized database linking models to manufacturers cannot be sufficient reason to ignore what is a clear determinative legal factor in cases involving prohibitions on firearm possession under federal law.
The Court, in affirming the Commonwealth Court’s decision and consistent with the requirements of Section 922(g), then went on to hold that
As the Commonwealth Court here properly found, the federal prohibition of Section 922(g) simply cannot apply absent some proof the firearm at issue moved in interstate or foreign commerce
This decision and its impact on the PSP’s high prosecution rate for individuals attempting to purchase firearms, who it contends are prohibited as a result of solely a federal prohibition, will likely yield substantial litigation, since a District Attorney will now, not only have to prove that the individual knew he/she was prohibited, consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Rehaif v U.S., but also that the firearm moved in interstate commerce. And then, what if the individual attempted to purchase a firearm from a Pennsylvania manufacturer? Based on this decision, an individual, who is solely prohibited under federal law, is not prohibited from purchasing and possessing a firearm that never moved in interstate commerce. Of course, what constitutes interstate commerce is an issue for another day, but arguably, the Commonwealth would have to prove that the person knew that the firearm moved in interstate commerce to establish a conviction consistent with the logic of Rehaif.
If you have been erroneously denied by the PSP or being prosecuted for making false statements while attempting to purchase a firearm, contact Firearms Industry Consulting Group today to discuss YOUR rights and legal options.
Firearms Industry Consulting Group® (FICG®) is a registered trademark and division of Civil Rights Defense Firm, P.C., with rights and permissions granted to Prince Law Offices, P.C. to use in this article.