Prohibiting a Pennsylvania State Police officer who had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility from possessing a firearm when he is off duty does not violate the officer’s Second or Fifth Amendment rights, the Superior Court has ruled.
In its Dec. 24, 2013, opinion in In re Application to Restore Firearms Rights of Michael L. Keyes, the court held that records of the officer’s involuntary commitment could not be expunged from his record and further that allowing him to possess a firearm only while he is on duty is not an unconstitutional violation of his rights.
Writing the three-judge panel’s majority opinion, Judge Kate Ford Elliott said the crux of why the court would not expunge the record was because the officer was committed under the restrictive Section 7303 of the Mental Health Procedures Act.
“We are aware of no authority, statutory or decisional, that provides for the expunction of a mental health commitment record where commitment was obtained pursuant to 50 P.S. 7303,” she said. “Because appellant was also committed under this section, he will not be able to expunge this record and he will continue to be prohibited from possessing firearms while off duty pursuant to 18 U.S.C.A. 922(g)(4) [of the Gun Control Act].”
Judge Robert E. Colville joined the opinion and Judge David N. Wecht concurred in the result.
According to Ford Elliott, in 2006, Michael L. Keyes was depressed and made multiple attempts to commit suicide by ingesting drugs. He was subsequently involuntarily committed to a mental health facility under Section 7302 and later Section 7303 of the MHPA.
In 2008, Keyes filed an application to restore his firearms rights, pursuant to 18 Pa. C.S.A. Section 6105(f)(1). The court restored his rights in 2009; however, the court did not expunge his involuntary commitment record.
Because the commitments remained on his record, Keyes was barred from possessing a firearm under Section 922 of the federal Gun Control Act; however, Section 925 of the act, which outlines the exceptions to the law, allowed him to possess a firearm while on duty, Elliott said.
“Thus, the Gun Control Act prohibits appellant from possessing a firearm only when he is off duty,” she said.
Keyes filed a motion to vacate his mental health commitment, and the court asked the State Police to show why the motion should be denied. The State Police filed its response three days late and the court took no action on the motion.
Three years later, Keyes filed another motion to expunge his record, which the trial court denied.
On appeal to the Superior Court, Keyes contended that the State Police should have been dismissed due to timeliness and a conflict of interest. He further argued that the broad language of Section 6105(f)(1) included the authority to expunge records pertaining to being committed under Section 7303.
Keyes also contended that the Second and Fifth Amendments rendered 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(8) unconstitutional. Specifically, he argued that being prohibited from carrying firearms while off duty violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, and that the law, as interpreted by the trial courts, deprived him of a genuine opportunity to petition for relief from the firearms prohibition.
Using the analysis outlined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller and citing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s 2010 decision in United States v. Marzzarella, Ford Elliott said a mentally ill person possessing firearms does not fall within the conduct that the Second Amendment was intended to protect. She added that the class of people is extremely small, so the prohibition does not severely limit the possession of the firearms.
“We find that the government has an important interest in keeping firearms out of the hands of those who have ever been adjudicated mentally defective or who have ever been committed to a mental institution,” she said. “The dangers inherent in the possession of firearms by the mentally ill are manifest.”
Ford Elliott further said that because Keyes would be supervised by his superiors and fellow officers, the exception allowing him to possess a firearm only while on duty was rational and did not violate his equal protection rights. Even though Keyes had received a clean bill of health, she said, there was no guarantee that he would not relapse.
“There is no such supervision while appellant is off duty,” Ford Elliott said. “Given the extreme potential harm attendant to the possession of deadly weapons by the mentally ill, and the risk of relapse, we see an important government interest in controlling the availability of firearms for those who have ever been adjudicated mentally defective or have ever been committed to a mental institution but are now deemed to be cured.”
According to Ford Elliott, Keyes also overstated the powers granted to the courts under Section 6105(f)(1), as interpreting the law to have such broad powers would render Section 6111.1g to be surplusage, and a strict reading of the laws rendered Keyes’ timeliness and conflict of interest arguments moot.
“Even if the Pennsylvania State Police were not properly a party to this case because that entity employs appellant, he suffered no prejudice because there was still no way for appellant to remove the Section 7303 impediment to possessing a firearm,” Ford Elliott said.
Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania State Police, was unable to comment on whether Keyes will appeal the decision.
“Our department is certainly abiding by the court’s ruling and our office of chief counsel is looking into any future ramifications the case may have,” Reed said.
Attorney Joshua Prince, of Prince Law Offices in Bechtelsville, Pa., did not return a call for comment.
(Copies of the 25-page opinion in In re Application to Restore Firearms Rights of Michael L. Keyes, PICS No. 13-3412, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •