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Pennsylvania gun rights for sex offender lands in Idaho Supreme Court

BOISE – A former Idaho man’s problems convincing the state of Pennsylvania he should have the right to bear arms landed in the Idaho Supreme Court Tuesday.

Todd Rich was convicted of rape in Idaho in 1992, a felony that carries a permanent loss of gun rights. That conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor in 2004 through a sentencing agreement, but he was still required to register as a sex offender. That kind of arrangement couldn’t happen today; Idaho changed its laws in 2006 to prevent a conviction on a felony sex offense from being reduced to a misdemeanor.

But in 2004, the court order noted, “The judgment is hereby deemed a misdemeanor conviction, thereby restoring the Petitioner to his civil rights.”

Now, Rich lives in Pennsylvania, and he sought clarification from the Pennsylvania State Police as to whether he has legal gun rights there. A Pennsylvania administrative law judge ruled that his Idaho rape conviction prohibited him from owning a gun there. That ruling also brings into play federal law, preventing him from having guns in any state.

So Rich filed suit in Idaho asking for a declaratory judgment saying that under Idaho law, he still has gun rights. In 2014, Fourth District Judge Lynn Norton dismissed his suit, saying he had no standing to sue because there’s no current dispute between Rich and the state of Idaho.

That’s the issue that brought Rich’s attorney, Leo Griffard, and Stephanie Altig, a deputy Idaho attorney general who represents the Idaho State Police, before the justices on Tuesday.

“His conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor and his civil rights were restored. There’s no reference of any kind made to firearms,” Griffard told the justices. “We believe we met the requirements of standing. There has been an actual injury, because a court in another state has refused to vindicate Mr. Rich’s right to bear arms.”

The state argued that even though the rape conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor, Rich still shouldn’t have his gun rights restored. The order “generically restoring Rich’s civil rights … did not change the fact of his Idaho felony rape conviction,” Altig argued in court documents. She noted the continued requirement to register as a sex offender in Idaho. “Since there are no Idaho misdemeanor sex crimes that require sex offender registration, it is clear that the district court recognized that, as an act of leniency, reducing Rich’s felony to a misdemeanor did not change the fact of Rich’s felony rape conviction.”

Under questioning from the justices, Griffard noted that Rich is not required to register as a sex offender in Pennsylvania.

But Altig argued that even if Rich’s gun rights were restored in Idaho, they still wouldn’t be in Pennsylvania, because that state’s law defines “conviction” as a finding of guilt or the entering of a guilty plea, regardless of what follows, unless the conviction has been “expunged or overturned” or the offender has been pardoned.

“I don’t think that if a district court in Idaho magically wrote down in a decision that Mr. Rich’s firearms rights would be restored, I don’t think it gets him anything under the Pennsylvania definition,” Altig told the justices.

Griffard responded, “You look at the law in the jurisdiction where the conviction occurred. I would submit that under the Idaho Constitution, he’s no longer a convicted felon and he has the right under our Idaho Constitution to bear arms.”

Justice Daniel Eismann asked Griffard why Rich didn’t just appeal the Pennsylvania administrative judge’s ruling. Griffard said, “I do not know the answer to that, Justice Eismann,” but added, “This does not only affect his right to bear arms in Pennsylvania, it affects his right to bear arms in any state because of the federal law.”

The justices took the case under advisement, and will issue their written decision in the coming weeks.

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