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Rice v. U.S.

October 18, 1995

PHILIP V. RICE, APPELLANT

v.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEPARTMENT OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO AND FIREARMS, APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 93-cv-06107)

Before ending our analysis, we believe that it is appropriate to comment on some other issues that are likely to arise in the course of the proceedings on remand. Though Rice's ignorance of section 922(g)(1)'s prohibition cannot excuse his criminal violation of that section, it may be relevant to his fitness for relief under section 925(c). Similarly, Rice's argument that his federal conviction for violation of section 922(g)(1) is a nullity fails. See United States v. MacGregor, 617 F.2d 348 (3d Cir. 1980) (affirming a conviction for possession of a firearm where the predicate federal convictions were reversed on appeal after defendant's firearms conviction). Nevertheless, this fact also may be relevant to Rice's claim for relief under section 925(c). Finally, we are reminded that the Supreme Court has held that the right to possess a firearm after a disabling conviction is a privilege, not a right. Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980). Thus, Rice bears a heavy burden in his attempt to support his statutory claim.

HUTCHINSON, Circuit Judge.

Argued: October 25, 1994

Filed October 18, 1995)

OPINION OF THE COURT

I. Introduction

Appellant, Philip V. Rice ("Rice"), appeals an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissing his request for judicial review of appellee's, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms's ("BATF"), refusal to process his application for relief from a firearm disability. Rice claimed that BATF acted contrary to the Gun Control Act of 1968 ("Act"), the Second Amendment and the Fifth Amendment.

Section 922(g)(1) of the Act prohibits persons convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment in excess of one year from owning or possessing firearms. Rice was so convicted. Section 925(c) authorizes BATF to lift this prohibition if, after an investigation, it is satisfied that the convict will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety and that the granting of such relief would not be contrary to the public interest. Section 925(c) gives BATF broad discretion, but its exercise of this discretion is subject to judicial review. The statute does not confine a district court to the administrative record, but authorizes the reviewing courts to receive additional evidence if necessary to avoid a "miscarriage of justice." Despite BATF's authority to grant relief from a firearm disability, Congress in recent years has prohibited it from spending appropriated funds to investigate such applications.

The district court granted BATF's motion for summary judgment on the merits of Rice's constitutional claims. It concluded, however, that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his statutory claim for judicial review of BATF's inability to complete the investigation that is a prerequisite to its action granting a convict's section 925(c) application. The court reasoned that judicial review was unavailable because BATF had not finally denied Rice's application, but simply lacked any present means to continue processing it.

While we will affirm the district court's decision to dismiss Rice's constitutional claims on their merits, we will reverse its order dismissing his section 925(c) claim and remand the case to the district court so that it can exercise its statutory discretion to decide whether BATF's failure to grant Rice the relief he seeks would be a miscarriage of justice. If it decides this question in the negative, it should dismiss Rice's request for judicial review on its merits. If it decides in the affirmative, Rice should be given an opportunity to present evidence relevant to section 925(c)'s standards for restoration of firearm privileges and thereafter the court should decide the merits of Rice's case on the completed record.

II. Factual and Procedural Background

Rice alleges these facts, all of which we assume are true at this stage of the case. In 1970, at age twenty, Rice pled guilty in a Pennsylvania state court to several related felonies involving stolen automobile parts. The state fined him and sentenced him to a term of probation. The Act, 18 U.S.C.A. Section(s) 921-30 (West & Supp. 1995), as amended, prohibits a person convicted of "a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" from possessing firearms. *fn1 18 U.S.C.A. Section(s) 922(g)(1) (West Supp. 1995).

It authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to grant relief from the disabilities imposed by Federal laws with respect to the acquisition . . . or possession of firearms . . . if it is established to [the Secretary's] satisfaction that the circumstances regarding the disability, and the applicant's record and reputation, are such that the applicant will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety and that the granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest. 18 U.S.C.A. Section(s) 925(c) (West Supp. 1995).

Rice claims that he did not realize his felony convictions deprived him of his right to own and possess firearms. As a hunter and a gun ...


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