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Hatfield v. Sessions

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

April 26, 2018

LARRY EDWARD HATFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS, III, in his Official Capacity as the Attorney General of the United States, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Larry Edward Hatfield wants to keep a gun in his home for self-defense. But the Government bans him from doing so, because 28 years ago, Hatfield lied on some forms that he sent to the Railroad Retirement Board: a felony in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a). Hatfield later pled guilty to one count of violating the statute, an offense for which he received no prison time and a meager amount in restitution fees pursuant to a formal plea agreement with the Government. Now, Hatfield brings this as-applied challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)-the statute that bans him from owning a gun-on the grounds that it violates his Second Amendment rights. Hatfield embeds his argument in United States v. Williams, 616 F.3d 685, 692 (7th Cir. 2010), which instructed that “[the Supreme Court's decision in D.C. v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)] referred to felon disarmament bans only as ‘presumptively lawful, ' which, by implication, means that there must exist the possibility that the ban could be unconstitutional in the face of an as-applied challenge.” If there is any case that rebuts that presumption, it is this one. So for the following reasons, the Court GRANTS summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff Larry E. Hatfield.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are undisputed. From August 5, 1989 to January 5, 1990, Hatfield completed several claim for benefits forms and sent them to the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. A, ECF No. 41-1.) That agency administers benefits for unemployed railroad workers pursuant to the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act. 45 U.S.C. § 351, et seq. (Id.) But Hatfield lied on the forms: he claimed that he was unemployed for 53 days when he was actually working for the Merchant Management Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri. Hatfield wrongfully obtained $1, 627.73 from the Railroad Retirement Board because of the lie. (Id.) Shortly thereafter, the Government charged Hatfield with one count of making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a): a felony.

         Hatfield later pled guilty to the charge following formal plea negotiations with the Government. Even though 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a) provides for up to five-years imprisonment for each violation, the Government recommended in the amended plea agreement that the court only sentence Hatfield to three years' probation plus restitution in the amount of improper benefits received: $1, 627.73. The court agreed, and ultimately sentenced Hatfield to those terms. (See United States v. Hatfield, No. 3:91-cr-30093.) Since that time, Hatfield has maintained a spotless record: he has no mental health issues, he does not drink, he has no drug addictions, and he does not even have any traffic citations since his felony conviction. The only other blight in his history is a driving while intoxicated charge from the 1980s, which predates the felony charge. (Hatfield Dep. 31:24-32:13, ECF No. 41-5.)

         Fast forward nearly three decades and we have a problem. Even though Hatfield received a small fine and no prison time for his non-violent statutory felony, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) bans him from owning a gun. That statute makes it unlawful for a person to possess a gun if they have been convicted of a crime that is technically punishable by more than one year (i.e. a felony)- regardless of the sentence that the individual actually received. Since making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a) is punishable by up to five years, Hatfield falls within the gambit of § 922(g)(1).

         Hatfield now brings an as-applied challenge to the statute, arguing that it violates his Second Amendment rights. His theory is straightforward: the Seventh Circuit has said that “there must exist the possibility that the [felon disarmament] ban could be unconstitutional in the face of an as applied challenge, ” Williams, 616 F.3d at 692, and Hatfield believes that he is the perfect challenger. He argues that the Government does not have an important interest in banning non-violent felons who received no prison time like him from having a gun. Hatfield also points out that while every state he researched has some sort of process to restore Second Amendment rights to felons on a case-by-case basis, the federal government does not. Curiously, 18 U.S.C. § 925(c) does provide a similar mechanism for a federal felon to restore their Second Amendment rights through an application to the Attorney General, but Congress has chosen to not fund § 925(c) since the early 1900s. Accordingly, the only other ways for a felon affected by § 922(g)(1) to restore his gun rights are (1) through a Presidential pardon, or (2) an expungement of the felony.

         The Government moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) the Second Amendment does not protect felons; and (2) even if it does, § 922(g)(1) satisfies intermediate scrutiny as-applied to felons like Hatfield. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 41-2.) The Court held oral argument on the matter, where Hatfield made a cross-motion for summary judgment for the reasons stated within his response brief. (See Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 47.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Summary judgment must be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). The Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2008); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Second Amendment commands: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Second Amendment rights, however, are not dependent on militia service: the amendment chiefly protects “the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.” McDonald v. City of Chicago, Ill., 561 U.S. 742, 750 (2010) (citing District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)). Heller explained that while the militia clause announced one purpose of the amendment's codification-to prevent the new federal government from disarming and oppressing the People, much like the English tried to do to the American Colonies-it had little to do with the central component of the “ancient right” to bear arms itself, which includes primary purposes like “self-defense and hunting.” Heller, 554 U.S. at 599.

         Heller gave birth to this case through a much-discussed footnote in the opinion. First, Heller instructs that nothing in the opinion “should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons.” Heller, 554 U.S. at 626-27. But then, a footnote attached to that same paragraph reads: “We identify these presumptively lawful regulatory measures only as examples; our list does not purport to be exhaustive.” Id. at 627 n.26 (emphasis added). The Seventh Circuit has already noted this dichotomy:

But the government does not get a free pass simply because Congress has established a “categorical ban”; it still must prove that the ban is constitutional, a mandate that flows from Heller itself. Heller referred to felon disarmament bans only as “presumptively lawful, ” which, by implication, means that there must exist the possibility that the ban could be unconstitutional in the face of an as-applied challenge. Therefore, putting the government through its paces in proving the constitutionality of § 922(g)(1) is only proper.

United States v. Williams, 616 F.3d 685, 692 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal citation omitted).

         The Seventh Circuit has since adopted a two-step inquiry for Second Amendment claims: (1) does the challenged statute cover conduct that falls within the Second Amendment's protections; and (2) if so, does the statute survive “some level of heightened scrutiny”? Baer v. Lynch, 636 Fed.Appx. 695, 698 (7th Cir. 2016). The case law applying this test, however, is messy. Some cases refuse to analyze step one and immediately jump to step two. Id.; United States v. Skoien, 614 F.3d 638 (7th Cir. 2010) (en banc);[1] Williams, 616 F.3d 685; Horsley v. Trame, 808 F.3d 1126 (7th Cir. 2015). One case blends the two steps together. United States v. Yancey, 621 F.3d 681 (7th Cir. 2010). Another case jumps the ship and asks if the challenged regulation has “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, ” a test which contradicts Heller itself. Friedman v. City of Highland Park, Illinois, 784 F.3d 406, 410 (7th Cir. 2015). There is only one case-Ezell v. City of Chicago, 651 F.3d 684, 700-04 (7th Cir. 2011)-that engages in a thorough analysis of both steps.[2]

         Despite this entanglement, it is possible to boil down the relevant case law to two steps. First, does the Second Amendment protect felons in the same class as Hatfield? Second, if the Second Amendment does protect felons like Hatfield, does ...


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