Full Faith and Credit, and Gun Permits

In re Denial of Application of Winston for a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card, 438 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2014).  George Winston, Jr. applied to the Police Chief in Clifton, New Jerey for a firearms purchaser identification card and a permit to purchase a gun.  In his application, Winston disclosed that he had two criminal convictions in New York.  In 1974, he had been convicted of secoond degree attempted assault, an offense punishable by imprisonment for up to four years.  In 1989, he had been convicted of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year, for possession of a controlled substance.  But in 2011, Winston obtained from New York courts “certificates for relief from disabilities” as to both convictions.  Those certificates stated that they “grant relief from all or certain enumerated disabilities, forfeitures, or bars to his employment automatically imposed by law by reason of his conviction[s] ….”  The certificates also made clear, however, that they “shall NOT be deemed nor construed to be a pardon.”

The Police Chief denied Winston’s application, based on his criminal record.  Winston appealed to the  Law Division, arguing that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution required New Jersey to honor the certificates of relief and therefore grant the requested permit.  The Law Division disagreed and upheld the Police Chief’s decision.  The Appellate Division then affirmed that decision today in an opinion by Judge Accurso.

Judge Accurso observed that, absent the certificates of relief, Winston plainly would not have been entitled to a gun permit.  N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3c(1) states that a firearms purchaser identification card cannot be issued to anyone who has been convicted of a crime, and a 1979 amendment to that statute made clear that out-of-state convictions such as those that Winston had precluded the issuance of such a card.

Judge Accurso then turned to the effect of the certificates under New York law to determine whether they gave Winston the right to purchase a gun in New Jersey.  She concluded that “[t]here is no question but that the certificates relieve Winston from the automatic disqualification his convictions would otherwise pose to his possessing a firearm in New York.”  But New York caselaw and other authority demonstrated that a certificate does not “alter or affect the criminal conviction to whch it relates.  Instead, it merely removes certain disabilities and bars to employment normally attendant to the conviction under New York law.  As such, full faith and credit is not implicated in New Jersey’s reliance on the existence of the convictions to bar Winston from gun ownership in New Jersey.”  Judge Accurso concluded that “[t]he Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require New Jersey to ignore its law that treats such convictions as automatically disqualifying simply because the certificates remove that automatic disqualifier under New York’s gun laws.”

The panel also easily rejected Winston’s reliance on the Second Amendment decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), and McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010).  Quoting In re Wheeler, 433 N.J. Super. 560, 617 (App. Div. 2013), Judge Accurso stated that “[w]e cannot conclude that the [Second] Amendment or the Court’s recent decisions require this State to dismantle its statutory scheme addressing the misuse and accidental use [of firearms] in public places devised long ago and developed over many years.  This scheme is crafted to burden the exercise of the right to use handguns for lawful purposes as little as possible, without abandoning this effort to maintain order and safety in public places.”