Can A Faulty Mental Health System Hijack Your Ability To Own A Gun? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Is Set To Decide

September 28, 2018

Imagine this: your child is a student in college and dealing with depression and anxiety. One difficult evening they end up in the hospital on account of those issues. A Court appointed attorney asks your child if they would like to stay and get a little help; they say yes. Do you know that your child was just involuntarily committed? Do you now know that your child will NEVER be able to possess a firearm inPennsylvania and, if they do, it will be a CRIME? Does any of this sound remotely fair? A similar issue is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and its ramifications could have permanent and lasting effects.

The case of In re JMY, 179 A.3d 1140, was decided by Pennsylvania's Superior Court on Valentine's Day this year. The case involved a gentleman who was a student at the University of Pittsburgh when he attended a fraternity party in 2012 and became intoxicated. At the time, he was taking prescribed medications for depression and anxiety. He was apprehended by University of Pittsburgh Police when he was reportedly attempting to harm himself. The police took him to Western Psychiatric Hospital, where he was involuntarily committed under section 302 of the Mental Health Procedures Act. He was discharged three days later and then continued his course of studies in law enforcement at the University of Pittsburgh. This became important to this gentleman later because it is a crime in Pennsylvania for a person committed under the Mental Health Procedures Act to own a firearm. This was obviously problematic for the former student as he sought a career in law enforcement and he therefore sought to have his record expunged in 2015.

The trial court upheld the commitment, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed that determination. The Superior Court found that due to the liberty and due process rights at stake in taking away someone's freedom, there must strict adherence to the rules for such commitments. Those procedures include that any involuntary commitment must be certified by a judge or mental health review officer. The testimony at the hearing on expungement showed that in this case the student was not properly advised of the hearing and that the public defender simply told him there "could be a hearing." He did not actually attend the hearing certifying his commitment. The Superior Court found that the proper procedures were not followed and stated that "that the certification was not proper and, therefore, the section 303 commitment was not valid." As a result, the Superior Court ruled that the former student's record should be expunged.

On September 17, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to take up the case solely on the issue of whether the Superior Court was wrong in exercising "jurisdiction to review a commitment under 50 P.S. § 7303, when no timely appeal was filed, and the challenge was brought years later under the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, 18 Pa. C.S. §§ 6111.1(g)(2) & 6105(f)(1)." All of that is say that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will address whether the Superior Court should have even heard the question given that the student failed to initially appeal his commitment and submitted that challenge years later when he discovered that the commitment would affect his ability to possess a firearm. This question is obviously of grave importance to the anonymous individual at the center of this case as it could have serious consequences for his potential career.

This case is but one example of a type of case that can have an effect on a person's ability to own or possess a firearm in Pennsylvania. Other types of cases include any kind of mental health proceedings, various criminal cases, and protection from abuse matters. We are a country where many people treasure their rights regarding firearms and you need to be very clear as to what proceedings will have an affect your ability to own firearms. It is important that you do not take any criminal, mental health, or other similar proceedings lightly and that you consult with an attorney as to the rights at stake and what you may be surrendering without even realizing it. At Conway Schadler our lawyers have extensive experience in the laws surrounding firearms, mental health and criminal offenses. Please call today to speak with one of our seasoned attorneys if you are experiencing problems in these areas.