Appellate Court Addresses Multiple Practices in NJ Firearms Permit Appeals, Forfeitures, and Application Reviews

One Case, Several Key Firearm Law Questions – Explore the New Jersey Appellate Division’s Latest Decision

The major issues before the Appellate Court in In re the matter of M.U.’s application for a handgun purchase permit and Firearms Purchaser Identification Card and compelling the sale of his firearms were the constitutionality of the Law Division judge’s determination that the defendant transfer and sell his weapons, denying his application for a handgun purchase permit (HPP), and terminating his Firearms Purchaser Identification Card (FPIC) on the grounds of public welfare and safety under N.J.S.,A. 2C:58-3(c)(5) after New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Bruen case. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitutionality of a law restricting gun ownership should be evaluated in the context of the U.S. gun regulation tradition and not a balancing of interests criterion.

The defendant further claimed that the trial court judge erred in considering expunged records to decide on the defendant’s gun permit application and not allowing a jury trial to determine the firearms sale and transfer issue. The defendant also raised the issue of whether the Second Amendment protects a repeat offender of police run-ins regarding theft, vandalism, property destruction, road rage, and criminal mischief. The statute prohibits anyone from acquiring a handgun permit or FPIC if public health, safety, or welfare is endangered by such an individual having a gun. The Appellate Court ruled that N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5) is not unconstitutional. Read on to explore each of the key questions raised by this case, what the Appellate Division decided on each issue, and the various implications for firearms laws in New Jersey moving forward.

Expunged Records Evidence can be Used Against HPP and FPIC Applicants in New Jersey

At trial to appeal the denial of his HPP application, the judge allowed the state to introduce expunged evidence of the defendant’s criminal convictions and denied the defendant’s motion for a jury trial on the gun seizure and sale issue. The evidence of lesser criminal infractions that did not result in convictions or were expunged convictions was the basis for the police chief denying the HPP and revoking the FPIC. The court assessed the defendant’s responses to questions regarding the criminal incidents and found the defendant displayed poor judgment and dishonesty in lying to the police about stealing a trailer, lack of anger control in cutting down a woman’s tree to intimidate her, and possibly lying to the court about the number of guns he owned. The judge found the defendant a risk for misusing firearms, given his past brushes with the law.

After detailing the application and gun permit appeal process for an HPP, the court considered using expunged records to assess an applicant and the appellant. The court noted that expungement is for those who turned their lives around, not for repeat offenders. The court then gave numerous examples of instances when expunged records are accessed in legal proceedings and ruled that case law supports using expunged records to deny a gun application on the grounds of public protection.

The court ruled that the expunged records could be used to deny an application and revoke an FPIC, and then moved to Bruen, which changed the basis for a law’s constitutionality in restricting gun ownership. The Bruen court ruled that the appropriate considerations are the Second Amendment’s language itself and the nation’s history with respect to gun regulation. The focus on a law’s legitimacy rests not in the importance of promoting a public interest so much as following precedent on gun regulation matters.

Appellate Court Talks Constitutionality of “Public, Safety, & Welfare” Since Bruen 

The trial court then ordered the defendant to surrender all his weapons to the police and arrange to sell them to licensed firearms dealers to avoid their destruction. The defendant appealed the decision; the court refused the defendant’s request to stay the sale. The critical issue considered by the appellant, the state, and those invited to submit amicus briefs, such as the Attorney General and the New York Rifle & Pistol Association, is whether the standard relied on to deny the defendant’s HPP application, forfeit his FPIC, and seize his guns, i.e., the public health, safety, and welfare, is constitutional after the Bruen ruling.

In fact, the court reasoned that a gun permit application constitutes a waiver of any privileges bestowed on one who expunges their criminal records, removing them from the public’s eye; a gun application is a permission for a background check and investigation. Moreover, denying an application to protect public welfare and safety is consistent with a criminal conviction disqualifying an individual from having a gun permit when their character and temperament endanger the public. The law intends to keep unfit people from having guns whether their crimes ended in conviction or not. Thus, the law aims to ensure that incapable people do not possess dangerous weapons, and only fit people do. Of course, there is a vast expanse of gray area when addressing fitness versus lack of fitness for any individual who wishes to obtain, possess, or own a gun in New Jersey and across the United States. Hence, the debates, legal challenges, and court decisions rage on.

The court stressed in Bruen that law-abiding citizens’ rights to bear arms should not be infringed, not law-breaking citizens’ rights to bear arms. The long-standing tradition is for states to ban those convicted of crimes (whether violent or not) from owning guns. In tracing the history concerning prohibited people from gun ownership, the Appellate Court noted the tradition of states banning certain people from gun ownership, including convicted criminals, regardless of the nature of the crime. The court then declares the statute is not vague and broad.

Thus, the Appellate Court reasoned that historically states could prevent those convicted of a crime or otherwise too dangerous to own a gun because of their temperament or actions that endanger the public safety and welfare. As such, they ruled that the statute in question does not violate the Second Amendment. Further, the fact that the defendant had a FPIC before is not evidence that the defendant has a valid FPIC for a new gun application. And what constituted a legal disability concerning the gun application also applies to the FPIC revocation.

Appellate Court Ends Long-Standing Practice of Compelling Forfeitures During Firearm Permit Appeal Hearings

The court found no case law support for the forfeiture of the firearms the defendant already possessed in contexts other than domestic violence, extreme risk protective order matters, criminal activity-related weapons incidents, and similar contexts. Thus, they remanded that portion of the judgment to be reviewed by a trial court. The court added that if a court does seek gun forfeiture, the defendant is entitled to a jury trial to make the determination, not a judge.

The Appellate Court confirmed that the forfeiture of previously owned guns has specific contexts in law, one of them being domestic violence and restraining order law. Still, gun forfeitures have no precedence when appealing a gun permit application denial. The implication for those with criminal convictions seeking expungements is that a gun application undoes the underpinnings of expungement, which is for law-abiding citizens to remove evidence of their mistakes. The court also protects a defendant’s constitutional rights to a jury trial when the state seeks to deprive them of their Second Amendment and property rights. The M.U. case disallows judges from overstepping their boundaries in seizing and ordering the sale of an applicant’s guns.

Secure Legal Representation when Your Rights are in Question

When charged with a crime involving guns or other weapons, appealing a gun permit application denial, applying for a firearms permit, or facing loss of your weapons based on a restraining order or extreme risk protective order in NJ, you should seek advice and protection from a solid gun law attorney.  A highly qualified NJ firearm lawyer at our firm can object to a court’s order for gun seizures in a gun permit context and also advise you when you apply for a gun permit with expunged records of criminal convictions, explaining how that might affect your application success and helping you create the best application possible. We can also help you appeal your application denial by emphasizing your Second and Fourth Amendment rights and demonstrating your good standing as a citizen. Our lawyers handle gun cases in every county in the state of New Jersey, knowing inside and out the strategies and tactics that can protect and preserve our clients’ rights in weapons defense, permits, forfeiture actions, and other gun law matters. This is what we do on a daily basis, so we are ready to assist you when legal challenges affecting your gun rights arise. Contact us online or call (201)-614-2474 for a free consultation with an attorney with extensive knowledge of gun law to protect your rights.