Second Amendment protects former soldier who had been psychiatrically committed 10 years ago, when he was 15

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Keyes v. Lynch, 2016 WL 3670852 (M.D. Penn.), decided Monday:

Plaintiff Jonathan Yox is a [Pennsylvania] state correctional officer. . . . [He] was [once] involuntarily committed as a juvenile to the psychiatric inpatient unit of Philhaven, a mental and behavioral health care provider in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, on March 31, 2006. At the time, he was 15 years old. He had been emotionally devastated by his parents' divorce and had begun cutting himself under the influence of an older girl. They also had made a suicide pact together.

On the Application for Involuntary Emergency Examination & Treatment filled out with regard to Mr. Yox, ("Philhaven Application"), the person filling out the form wrote that he or she believed Mr. Yox was severely mentally disabled. Part I of the Philhaven Application contains the following paragraph:

A person is severely mentally disabled when, as a result of mental illness, his/her capacity to exercise self-control, judgment and discretion in the conduct of his/her affairs and social relations or to care for his/her own personal needs is so lessened that he/she poses a clear and present danger of harm to others or to himself or herself.

Mr. Yox's initial commitment, or period of treatment, was not to exceed 120 hours, as provided by state law. On or about April 3, 2006, Mr. Yox was admitted for extended involuntary emergency treatment under state law. Mr. Yox was ultimately discharged on or about April 6, 2006. . . .

In 2008, when he was 17, Mr. Yox enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served until 2012, when he received an honorable discharge. During his military service, Mr. Yox was trained to use, and did use, various kinds of firearms, including fully automatic rifles, machine guns, explosives, and grenade launchers. Upon his return from active duty in Afghanistan, Mr. Yox was not recommended for further psychological evaluation after his deployment briefing.

Mr. Yox has never again been involuntarily committed since the one time he was committed as a juvenile. Yox also avers that he has never been convicted of any felony or any misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, has never been convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year, is not an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance, has never been adjudicated as a mental defective, and has never been discharged from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions.

As a result of [his] involuntary commitments, [Yox] lost [his] private capacity firearm rights by operation of 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(c)(4) and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). The Pennsylvania statute prohibits a "person who has been adjudicated as an incompetent or who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution for inpatient care and treatment . . ." from possessing or using a firearm. 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105(c)(4). The federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), prohibits any person "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution" from possessing firearms or ammunition.

Notwithstanding his inability to possess firearms in his private capacity, Mr. Yox carries and uses firearms in his current job. Mr. Yox actively possesses and uses a firearm in his official capacity as a state correctional officer. He is permitted to possess firearms in his official capacity as a law enforcement officer by operation of 18 U.S.C. § 925(a)(1), which provides an exception to the firearms disability created by § 922(g)(4) for individuals benefitting in their official capacities the federal or state government. . . .

On August 14, 2013, after an evaluation by a psychologist, Mr. Yox filed a Petition to Vacate and Expunge his Involuntary Commitment with the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas. The court found it was prohibited under state law from granting the relief of expungement. However, the court did grant Mr. Yox state relief from any disability imposed pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6105, based on a finding that Mr. Yox "no longer suffers from the mental health condition that was the basis for his commitments" and is able to "safely possess a firearm without risk to himself or any other person."

Federal law allows state decisions to lift state gun disabilities to also have the effect of lifting federal gun disabilities, but only if the states adhere to federally prescribed standards for dealing with such matters. But the court concluded that Pennsylvania law doesn't adhere to those standards, so the federal statutory disability was still in effect as to Yox. The question then was whether Yox had a Second Amendment right that trumped this federal prohibition.

The court concluded that, though D.C. v. Heller said that bans on gun possession by the "mentally ill" were "presumptively lawful," this presumption could be rebutted in some circumstances. In particular, if someone with a history of mental commitment can show "that he is 'no more dangerous than a typical law-abiding citizen,' or that he 'poses no continuing threat to society,'" he is entitled under the Second Amendment to possess guns again. And Yox showed that this was so:

Defendants do not provide evidence of any episode of mental illness since this [Yox's] one and only commitment [in 2006]. It is indeed significant that Mr. Yox's predicate commitment occurred because his behavior was dangerous to himself and possibly others. Without more, this might weigh against finding in favor of his as-applied challenge. However, there is no evidence that Mr. Yox has ever been violent or acted in an unstable or dangerous manner toward himself or others since his commitment. This weighs in favor of finding that he poses no "continuing threat." . . .

What is most striking about Mr. Yox's as-applied challenge . . . is the fact that he has been authorized to possess and use, and has in fact possessed and used, firearms while he served in the military and while he worked as a state correctional officer in Pennsylvania. Indeed, Mr. Yox used fully automatic rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and incendiary grenades while serving in the 82nd Airborne of the United States Army. Again, Defendants have submitted no evidence that Mr. Yox misused firearms or acted in a dangerous manner in those professional capacities. Thus, the record indicates that throughout his adulthood, despite his personal firearms disability due to § 922(g)(4), Mr. Yox has possessed and used firearms in his professional capacity without incident.

Further, it is noteworthy that a state court has already found Mr. Yox to not be a continuing threat to himself or others. As detailed earlier, in May 2014, a Pennsylvania state court reviewed Mr. Yox's petition to vacate and expunge his involuntary commitment and issued an order granting him state relief from any disability imposed pursuant to state law. The judge found that "[t]he Petitioner no longer suffers from the mental health condition that was the basis for his commitments" and "[t]he Petitioner may safely possess a firearm without risk to himself or any other person." . . .

The state court issued its relief from disability in part based on a comprehensive evaluation of Mr. Yox by psychologist Anthony Fischetto . . . whose report has been provided to this Court for review. Dr. Fischetto concluded that Mr. Yox does not appear to pose a threat to himself or others with regard to possession of a firearm. He also noted that Mr. Yox's "current mental state and stability appear to be intact." . . .

It requires a suspension of logic to believe that Mr. Yox is mentally stable enough to possess and use various types of firearms in his professional capacity, including putting his life on the line for his country while on active military duty, but is not mentally stable enough to possess a firearm for self-protection in his home. . . .

Defendants mainly rely on general statistics purportedly showing that persons who have been committed pose an enhanced risk of violence involving firearms. They also rely on studies showing that individuals who have been involuntarily committed are frequently subject to relapse into mental illness "and, hence, potential dangerousness." As an initial matter, general statistics have less weight in an as-applied challenge in which the court must review the specific facts of an individual's case.

Statistics regarding the frequency of relapse might supply some momentary pause, given that it is always difficult to predict the future; namely, whether a person will ever experience an episode of mental illness again. However, there is no evidence that Mr. Yox has experienced a relapse in the decade since he was committed while a juvenile. That interval is significant.

Indeed, the United States and Pennsylvania have trusted Mr. Yox day after day with firearms for many years, despite the theoretical possibility of a relapse. Were we to find that Mr. Yox failed in his as-applied challenge on the grounds that there is an apparent statistical likelihood he may experience a relapse, this would render the absurd result of effectively barring all future plaintiffs who have ever been committed from ever successfully asserting an as-applied challenge to § 922(g)(4).

We further note that Mr. Yox's as-applied challenge is strengthened by the fact that Pennsylvania does not have a mechanism that has the power to relieve him of his federal firearms disability. Were he to live in one of the multiple states that have such a program, our analysis might be different.

Upon a thorough review of the facts of the instant matter, we find that Mr. Yox has adequately and compellingly demonstrated the factual grounds for his as-applied challenge. He has shown that he is "no more dangerous than a typical law-abiding citizen" at this point in his life, and that he is not a "continuing threat" to himself or others. . . .

The Court is not aware of any other case where another plaintiff has successfully challenged his firearms disability pursuant to § 922(g)(4). This is logical and expected, as it is highly unlikely that most of the people who have been adjudicated as a "mental defective" or who have been committed to a mental institution will be able to present a court with sufficiently compelling facts to warrant relief from the federal firearms disability. But that does not mean that it is impossible for any plaintiff to present such facts. Indeed, if Mr. Yox were not to succeed on his as-applied challenge, we cannot imagine that there exists any person who could.

It's likely, I think, that the government will appeal.

Note that the case is called Keyes v. Lynch because the plaintiffs were Michael Keyes and Jonathan Yox; but Michael Keyes's claims were dismissed on procedural grounds.