When Decisions Matter.

Municipalities Dodge a Bullet

In November 2014, the Pennsylvania legislature approved HB 80 at the end of their sessions and Governor Corbett signed the bill into law as Act 192, which was to become effective January 5, 2015.  HB 80 originally began its life as a simple amendment to the Crimes Code to create a crime for the theft of secondary metals, such as aluminum and copper.  However, through a series of amendments and reconsiderations, when finally adopted, HB 80 (Act 192) addressed three separate subjects: 1) the crime of theft of secondary materials; 2) the reporting requirements by the State Police making it mandatory to disclose certain mental health issues/findings to federal authorities to determine if an individual is disqualified from possessing a firearm; and 3) creating a civil cause of action, including 3rd parties (i.e. NRA) against municipalities with regard to ordinances aimed at gun rights, as well as provide for the payment of the attorney fees of individuals or advocacy groups challenging such ordinances.

Shortly after HB 80 was enacted as Act 192, a number of legislators and the cities of Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh filed suit in the Commonwealth Court to have Act 192 declared unconstitutional.  The petitioners presented arguments under two sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  The first argument was made under Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution which requires a bill to have a single subject clearly expressed in the title of the bill (with limited exceptions).  The second argument was pursuant to Article III, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which requires a bill to retain its original purpose from introduction to adoption.

The Commonwealth Court analyzed the single purpose argument using a two-part test:  1) whether the title of the bill expressed the substance of the proposed law; and 2) whether the different concepts included in the bill were germane to one another.  In order to be germane, the subjects must have a relationship to a common purpose or be able to be considered as falling within a unifying scheme to accomplish a single purpose.  Even though the courts in the past have used a broad interpretation of bills to find a unifying purpose, the Commonwealth Court declined to do so here.  The Commonwealth Court found:

We agree with Petitioners that the primary subjects covered by Act 192, which on one hand, set forth criminal penalties for theft of copper and aluminum, and, on the other, create a civil cause of action to challenge municipal firearms legislation, one so disparate that they lack any clear, common nexus.  Thus we discern no single unifying subject to which all of Act 192’s provisions are germane.

Because the Commonwealth Court found a constitutional issue with the second part of the single purpose test, it did not need to examine the “clear title” requirement.  As such, the Commonwealth Court held that Act 192 clearly, palpably and plainly violates the single subject rule of Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Article III, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that:  “No law shall be passed by bill and no bill shall be so altered or amended, on its passage through either House, as to change its original purpose.”  In order to survive an original purpose challenge, the bill must survive a two-part test:  1) the Court first compares the bill’s original purpose to the final purpose to determine whether the original purpose changed; and 2) whether the title and contents of the legislation are deceptive in the final form.  When considering the bill’s original purpose, a Court must hypothesize, based on the text of the statute, a reasonably broad original purpose.

The Commonwealth Court found that the addition of the civil cause of action for individuals and advocacy groups to challenge local firearms legislation was altered in such a manner as to change the fundamental purpose.  Because Act 192 did not pass part one of the two-part test, the Court did not review the second part of the test.  Based on this finding, the Commonwealth Court declared Act 192 to be unconstitutional under Article III, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution also.

Based on the Commonwealth Court’s decision, municipalities will not be subject to potential challenges of local firearms ordinances by advocacy groups or the risk of attorney fees for such challenges.  There remain limitations on the scope of local regulation of firearms and the Municipal Group at Stock and Leader is always available to assist with those questions.

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