Federal law at 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) makes it illegal for a person to possess a firearm if that person “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.” What exactly constitutes being “adjudicated a mental defective?” The following case summary presents one such example.
In a Nutshell: Under federal law a state court proceeding in which someone is found mentally incompetent to stand trial qualifies as a determination of mental competency under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), even though such a finding may not have been in a contested proceeding.
In 2011, James Michael Bartley was arrested on suspicion of DUI in Idaho. He was later charged with DUI and assigned a public defender. While trying to communicate with Bartley, the public defender questioned his competence to stand trial and the judge ordered a mental evaluation of him under Idaho Code § 18-211, which we believe is similar to California Penal Code § 1368 wherein proceedings are suspended for a psychiatrist to evaluate defendant and report to the judge if defendant is competent to stand trial.
In Bartley’s DUI case, the psychologist who performed the evaluation found Bartley “appeared genuine and consistent in his presentation and belief, stating that he is the son of God, experiencing persecution by those who do not believe in him. This appears to be a fixed delusional belief with prominent religious features with possible auditory hallucinations.” The psychologist believed Bartley’s delusional disorder would prevent him from assisting in his defense.
Based on his review of the mental evaluation, the judge in the DUI case found Bartley lacked fitness to stand trial and lacked the capacity to make informed decisions about his treatment. On August 8, 2011, the judge ordered Bartley committed to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare for evaluation and treatment pursuant to Idaho Code § 18-212. There, Bartley was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and chronic mental illness.
Six weeks after his commitment, the state hospital determined that Bartley’s competence was restored and discharged him. On October 20, 2011, the judge entered an order terminating the commitment under Idaho Code § 18-212 and sentenced Bartley to probation for the DUI conviction.
Seven years later, in 2018, someone called the police to report a man (Bartley) in a parking lot, yelling obscenities at a vehicle. A witness and Bartley argued and the witness recorded the interaction on a cell phone. In the video, Bartley pointed a gun at the witness and then left.
Officers then went to Bartley’s house with a search warrant and found firearms and ammunition.
Bartley was then charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), based on his 2011 commitment to an Idaho state hospital after he was found incompetent to stand trial for that DUI.
In the 2018 case, Bartley filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that § 922(g)(4) is unconstitutional. The district court, applying intermediate scrutiny, finding the firearm ban in § 922(g)(4) is not overly burdensome “because those to whom the statute applies can participate in a petition process to restore their right to firearm possession.” United States v. Bartley (D. Idaho, 2019) 400 F. Supp. 3d 1066, 1071.
The district court found that the 2011 state court proceeding for DUI, in which Bartley was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to the state hospital, brought Bartley within the meaning of § 922(g)(4).
Bartley then entered a plea bargain and the U.S. district court judge sentenced Bartley to twenty months in federal prison.
Bartley then appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, Washington, arguing that the competency proceeding in the DUI case did not constitute an adjudication or commitment within the meaning of § 922, as well as a few other arguments. Because California is within the Ninth Circuit, this ruling is summarized here. This article’s scope will only summarize Bartley’s argument that the state court proceedings, like California’s 1368 proceedings, did not constitute an adjudication of competence or a commitment under § 922(g)(4).
Bartley’s main contention, it seems, is that there was no separate adjudication of competence like in a conservatorship proceedings under a separate Idaho statute specifically addressing competency.
The Ninth Circuit found that state court proceedings did constitute such an adjudication and commitment, relying on a similar appeal that found such proceedings did qualify. NLRB v. Nat. Gas Util. Dist. (1971) 402 U.S. 600, 603 (“it is to be assumed when Congress enacts a statute that it does not intend to make its application dependent on state law.”).
We present this article because we can anticipate a similar prosecution in federal court for someone who had state court proceedings suspended under California Penal Code § 1368 and would expect such an argument to arise in federal court. However, this case suggests such a defense would be futile.
The citation for the ruling from the Ninth Circuit for the U..S. Court of Appeals discussed above is United States v. James Michael Bartley (9th Cir., 2021) 9 F. 4th 1128.
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