Yesterday, the Commonwealth Court issued a decision in PSP v. Slaughter, 858 C.D. 2015, where the court held that the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) can meet its burden, through circumstantial evidence, establishing that an individual is a prohibited from purchasing and possessing firearms due a putative involuntary commitment.
While the factual background for this case was not the best, in essence and summed up succinctly, no Petition exists of Mr. Slaughter being involuntarily committed, pursuant to Section 302 of Pennsylvania’s Mental Health and Procedures Act (“MHPA”). However, an MHPA Section 303 Petition (next level of involuntary commitment) was lodged with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and reflects within it that Mr. Slaughter was previously committed under Section 302 of the MHPA. There was no dispute that a Section 302 Petition does not currently exist and the 303 Petition was later withdrawn, when Mr. Slaughter agreed to being voluntarily commitment, in lieu of being involuntarily committed pursuant to Section 303 of the MHPA.
Although 18 Pa.C.S. § 6105(c)(4) declares that an individual is only prohibited if “the examining physician has issued a certification that inpatient care was necessary or that the person was committable” (which would only be specified on the 302 Petition), the court found that it was not necessary for the PSP to produce the 302 Petition and that the PSP could meet its burden through circumstantial evidence, such as the 303 Petition, which suggests that Mr. Slaughter was committed pursuant to Section 302, and other records that were obtained.
The court, in so holding, has determined that an individual’s fundamental right can be stripped through circumstantial evidence. Setting aside that no other fundamental right can be stripped of an individual in perpetuity, there is no existing precedent that a fundamental right can be stripped based merely on circumstantial evidence. In this regard, the court’s decision is extremely alarming. Can the PSP now establish that an individual is prohibited through the testimony of a vindictive spouse, who says the the individual was involuntarily committed, but for which, no commitment ever occurred?
As the court, in essence, disregarded the limitation specified within Section 6105(c)(4) by stating that the General Assembly never specifically stated that the actual certification must be produced, it clear that the MHPA and Uniform Firearms Act must be amended in relation to mental health issues. These types of decisions will have a detrimental effect in society, as those who may otherwise seek out treatment, will now be concerned about losing their fundamental rights by merely seeking out help and will therefore not seek necessary assistance. And, by not seeking help, those individuals may be more inclined to harm themselves or others. If we want to solve the mental health issues in the United States, we need to openly welcome those seeking assistance with all forms of mental health conditions, without any threat of the individual being stripped of their fundamental rights