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Case Analysis of
U.S. v. Bean
by Donald Ray Burger
Attorney at Law

U.S. v. Bean, 537 U.S. 71, 123 S.Ct. 584, 154 L.Ed.2d. 483, (2002)

Thomas Bean, of Orange, Texas, was a fully licensed gun dealer. On Saturday, March 14, 1998, Mr. Bean and three assistants were attending a gun show in Laredo, Texas.

At the end of the day the foursome decided to go to Nuevo Laredo for dinner. Before leaving, Mr. Bean told his assistants to remove all firearms and ammunition from his 1994 Suburban.

Unfortunately, approximately 200 rounds of ammo were overlooked. Mexican border authorities saw the ammo as Mr. Bean was crossing the border.

Mr. Bean was arrested for violating Mexican law against bringing ammunition into Mexico. During his interrogation he was presented with a piece of paper written in Spanish. Mr. Bean does not speak or read Spanish. He was told that he must sign the paper or face additional charges for refusing to sign. He signed. The "paper" was a confession in Spanish. Two months after he was arrested Mr. Bean was convicted by a Mexican Court and sentenced to five years in prison, and fined 17,679 pesos. He remained in Mexican prison until September 21, 1998, when he was transferred to the La Tuna Penitentiary in Texas under the International Prisoner Transfer Treaty.

Mr. Bean was released from La Tuna Penitentiary on October 21, 1998, under supervised release, which was ended by a U.S. District Court order on August 30, 1999.

Although it is not a US or Texas law for someone like Mr. Bean to travel with ammunition in the back of a Suburban, the Mexican conviction was recognized under 18 USC 922(g)(1) as a felony because the "possible sentence" was for a term exceeding one year. Thus, Mr. Bean, as a convicted felon, was prohibited from "shipping, transporting or possessing" firearms or ammunition. 18 USC 922(g)(1). Needless to say, his life as a gun dealer was ended.

There is a procedure for having one's gun rights restored. That procedure is found at 18 USC 925(c). The Fifth Circuit discussed the origins of this section at footnote 9 of its decision, Bean v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 253 F. 3d. 234, 238 (5th Cir. 2001), rev'd, 537 U.S. 71, 123 S.Ct. 584, 154 L.Ed.2d. 483, (2002). The footnote explains that, according to the Congressional Record, Senator Frank Lautenberg, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, noted that the original relief provision was enacted to rescue Winchester Firearms Company, whose parent corporation, Olin Winchester, had pleaded guilty to felony counts on a kickback scheme. Corporations are considered "persons" under the law for most purposes. Thus, unless an exception for felons was enacted, Winchester Firearms Company could not possess firearms or ammunition, and its very existence was threatened. Under 925(c) a felon (even a corporation) can apply to the Secretary of Treasury for relief from the effect of 922 (g)(1). The Secretary of Treasury is empowered to restore firearms privileges "if it is established to [the Secretary's] satisfaction that the circumstances regarding the disability, and the applicant's record and reputation are such that the applicant will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety and that the granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest." 18 USC 925(c).

The Secretary has delegated this power to the BATF. The statute also provides that, should the application for relief from disabilities be denied, the applicant can appeal to a U.S. District Court. 18 USC 925(c).

At first, the BATF performed its duties. However, according the Fifth Circuit (253 F. 3d. at 237), in late 1991 the Washington Post ran stories and editorials claiming felons were being rearmed under the statute. In the Senate a bill entitled "Stop Arming Felons Act" was introduced to repeal the relief provision. Although the bill never made it out of the Judiciary Committee, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees proposed language in 1992 to prohibit expenditure of any funds to "investigate or act upon applications for relief from Federal firearms disabilities under 18 USC 925(c)." Congress has imposed similar funding restrictions every year since.

In July of 1999, Mr. Bean wrote the BATF, asking for relief under 925(c). The BATF replied that the Bureau was not taking applications because Congress had denied funding for the investigations.

Bean then filed a "Petition for Relief of Disabilities Under the Federal Firearms Act" with the U.S. District Court in Beaumont.

The statute gives an applicant the right to appeal a denial by the BATF. Because of the lack of an appropriation, the BATF took the position that they would not approve or deny applications. Bean argued that the refusal to act was a "constructive denial," sufficient to allow Bean to appeal the "denial" to District Court.

The US Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, disagreed. "Inaction by the ATF does not amount to a 'denial' within the meaning of 925(c)." U.S. v. Bean, 537 U.S. 71, 75, 123 S.Ct. 584,587, 154 L.Ed.2d. 483, (2002).

The Supreme Court also held that the provision allowing district courts to review ATF decisions provided for just that--a review of an ATF decision. The Court held that the initial determination of the merits of the application for restoration of firearms rights is "a function best performed by the Executive, which, unlike the courts, is institutionally equipped for conducting a neutral, wide-ranging investigation." 537 U.S. at 77.

The District Court and the Fifth Circuit had both held that a district court was able to conduct reviews of applications even in the absence of an ATF decision. The District court had noted that because the burden of proof was on the applicant, if the applicant did not provide sufficient proof to satisfy a district court, that court would deny the application.

The District Court decision set out in detail the evidence Mr. Bean introduced to prove he was worthy of having his firearms rights restored.
1. Bean offered testimony from an BATF inspector that Mr. Bean had been a cooperative licensee and maintained excellent records during the time he had his gun dealer's license.
2. Bean offered testimony from the Chief of Police of Port Arthur that he knew Bean and that Bean was a law abiding citizen.
3. Bean offered testimony from a deputy sheriff as to Bean's good character.
4. Bean offered testimony from a local businessman (and competitor of Bean's) as to Bean's good reputation in the business community.
5. Bean offered the testimony from another local businessman who had hunted with Bean that Bean was a safe handler of firearms. (One of the effects of a felony conviction is no more hunting.)
6. Bean also offered numerous letters from individuals supporting Bean's application.

This evidence, all subject to cross examination by the government's lawyer, convinced the District Court to restore Bean's firearm rights. The Government appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit review the trial court record and agreed that Bean was qualified to have his firearm rights restored. It held: "We are mindful of the serious concerns articulated about convicted felons regaining the right to possess firearms, and of the need for congressional review and enhancement of the safeguards and procedures for appropriately accomplishing this apparently worthy goal, but we are faced herein with the almost incredible plight of Thomas Bean who, at most, was negligent in not ensuring that his associates completely performed the simple task directed, and who served months in Mexican and U.S. prisons for a simple oversight. We do not believe that any reasonable observer is persuaded that his offense creates a likelihood he represents a threat to the public's well-being, and it is beyond peradventure to believe that Congress, or those seeking to rescind 925(c), intended for someone like Bean to lose his livelihood on the basis of the facts such as are before us. Neither equity nor the law require such an injustice."

235 F.3d. 234, 240, rev'd, 537 U.S. 71, 123 S.Ct. 584, 154 L.Ed.2d. 483, (2002).

Although the statute specifically provides for the admission of additional evidence at the trial court level, the US Supreme Court, in reversing this view of the Fifth Circuit, held that such evidence should come in "only in exceptional circumstances." 537 U.S. at 77. The Supreme Court held that the procedure outlined in 925(c) shows Congress wanted the district court to "review" ATF decisions. And this reveals a circumscribed role for the district court, which is to admit additional evidence only where failure to do so would result in a miscarriage of justice.

The final conclusion from the Supreme Court:

"According, we hold that the absence of an actual denial of respondent's petition by ATF precludes judicial review under 925(c), and therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals." 537 U.S. at 78.

Case analyzed as of 2/27/04

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