R.C. v. Dep't of Agric. & Consumer Servs.

Decision Date16 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 1D19-2797,1D19-2797
Citation323 So.3d 275
Parties R.C., Appellant, v. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND CONSUMER SERVICES, DIVISION OF LICENSING, Appellee.
CourtFlorida District Court of Appeals

Eric J. Friday of Kingry & Friday, Jacksonville; Noel Howard Sohn Flasterstein of Noel H. Flasterstein, P.A., Hollywood, for Appellant.

Steven Hall, General Counsel; and Tobey Schultz, Senior Attorney, Tallahassee, for Appellee Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

James Martin, General Counsel; and D. Jason Harrison, Assistant General Counsel, Tallahassee, for Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

ON HEARING EN BANC

Long, J.

In 1969, R.C. was convicted of a felony for stealing an eight-track player in Charleston, Illinois. In 1971, his probation was terminated early and the Governor of Illinois restored his "Rights of Citizenship." He later applied for, and received, an Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification Card, an Illinois Concealed Carry License, and completed concealed carry firearms training. The record suggests that after 1969, R.C. spent the next five decades without another criminal conviction.

When R.C. moved to Florida, he applied for a Florida license to carry a concealed weapon. Relying on a federal law that governs federally licensed firearm dealers, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services denied his application. Because the Department's findings of fact are not supported by competent, substantial evidence and its conclusions of law are erroneous, we reverse.

I. Statutory Framework

Florida has a "shall issue" concealed-carry law. § 790.06(2), Fla. Stat. (2020) ("The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services shall issue a license if the applicant" meets the enumerated criteria) (emphasis added); Norman v. State , 215 So. 3d 18, 45 (Fla. 2017) (Canady, J., dissenting) (Florida's shall-issue concealed-carry law "broadly require[s] the issuance of concealed-carry permits subject to narrow exclusions."). The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is responsible for the issuance of concealed-carry licenses. § 790.06(1), Fla. Stat. ("The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is authorized to issue licenses to carry concealed weapons or concealed firearms to persons qualified as provided in this section.").

This shall-issue statutory scheme means the Department is responsible for determining eligibility but has no discretion to deny an applicant that meets the statutory criteria. Norman , 215 So. 3d at 21 (plurality opinion) (finding section 790.06 "leaves no discretion to the licensing authority, the licensing authority must issue an applicant a concealed carry license, provided the applicant meets objective, statutory criteria.").

The Department is exclusively responsible for determining the eligibility of a concealed-carry license applicant. § 790.06(6)(d), Fla. Stat. ("[T]he Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services shall determine eligibility ....") (emphasis added). As a part of the eligibility evaluation, the statute requires the submission of the applicant's fingerprints and personal information for a check against available criminal justice information. § 790.06(6), Fla. Stat. The Department must, within ninety days of receiving the applicant's information, issue the license, deny the license, or suspend the ninety-day period. § 790.06(6)(c), Fla. Stat. These provisions expressly contemplate the Department's evaluation of rights-restoration documents. § 790.06(6)(c) 3., Fla. Stat. The suspension of the ninety-day period allows the Department more time to evaluate "proof of restoration of civil and firearm rights." Id. The Department may suspend the time limitation "until receipt" of the restoration documents. Id.

In addition to other statutory criteria, the Department must consider the final qualification in section 790.06(2). That section is a catch-all provision that states that the applicant must not be "prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm by any other provision of Florida or federal law." § 790.06(2)(n), Fla. Stat.

If the eligibility evaluation results in an application denial, the Department must notify the applicant in writing, explain the reason for the denial, and inform the applicant of his right to a hearing under chapter 120. § 790.06(6)(c) 2., Fla. Stat. An applicant is entitled to a formal hearing when his substantial interests are affected and there is a disputed issue of material fact. § 120.569(1), Fla. Stat. (2020).

II. Facts

R.C. sought a concealed carry license, submitted the proper paperwork, and paid the $119 fee. He was then informed by letter that the Department denied his application because "[i]nformation received by the Department indicates that you are prohibited under federal law from possessing a firearm pursuant to the National Instant Criminal Background check system," or NICS. This "information" was a search result that provided little—only that he is NICS ineligible for having a felony conviction. It is reproduced in its entirety here:

NICE INELIGIBLE INFORMATION

The following data was recieved from FDLE:

 Submitted Results TCN Name Application Name FPP Determination Reason Code
                from DOACS Delivered Cnt
                  07/26/2018       07/26/2018    70ST360000020301   1                            NICS INELIGIBLE      FELOCY
                  12:38:54 AM     10/59:29 AM                                                                       CONVICTION
                

R.C. expressly disputed the factual basis for the denial and invoked his right to a formal evidentiary hearing under chapter 120. He acknowledged that he was convicted of a felony in Illinois in 1969. But he explained, and provided proof, to the Department that Illinois restored his firearm rights and issued him an Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification Card and an Illinois Concealed Carry License. R.C. submitted a restoration of rights certificate from the Governor of Illinois and court documents reflecting the restoration. He argued that he can lawfully purchase and possess a firearm.

But the Department rejected the request for a formal hearing and referred him to an informal hearing. The Department refused the formal hearing because it argued the NICS result was binding as a matter of law and, unless R.C. was disputing the existence of the NICS result, there were no genuinely disputed issues of material fact.

At the informal hearing, the Department elected not to provide a representative and submitted nothing . The hearing officer reiterated that the denial of R.C.’s application hinged on the NICS results. R.C. challenged the Department for denying his application without producing any evidence. R.C. argued a formal hearing was required where he could dispute material facts and challenge the documents the Department relied on to deny his application. And he argued, repeatedly, that he is not disqualified under any federal or state law.

Following the hearing, the Department issued a final order. The Department made a finding of fact that "[t]he Department has received information ... that [R.C.] is prohibited under Federal law from possessing a firearm pursuant to [NICS]." The Department acknowledged that R.C. timely requested a formal hearing and that he had submitted his rights-restoration paperwork. The Department claimed to have "made no independent determination of [R.C.’s] ability to possess a firearm, but solely depended" on the NICS information. The Department then concluded as a matter of law that it correctly applied section 790.06(2)(n) when it determined that the NICS result prohibits R.C. from possessing a firearm under federal law.

III. Analysis

We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 4(b)(2), Fla. Const. We review findings of fact for competent, substantial evidence. § 120.68(7)(b) Fla. Stat. (2020). We review statutory interpretations de novo. Art. V, § 21, Fla. Const. ("In interpreting a state statute or rule, a state court ... may not defer to an administrative agency's interpretation of such statute or rule, and must instead interpret such statute or rule de novo.").

A. National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)

The Department denied R.C.’s application claiming that he was prohibited by NICS from possessing a firearm under federal law and that he therefore did not meet the statutory criteria. See § 790.06(2)(n), Fla. Stat. The question before the Court is whether the Department correctly relied on the NICS result to deny R.C.’s application.1 The answer is no.

A NICS result does not mean an individual is prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Instead, the NICS provisions regulate the conduct of federally licensed firearm dealers through a background check system. A licensed dealer is required to attempt to run a customer's name through the NICS database before selling a firearm. If the check comes back with disqualifying information, the dealer cannot proceed with the sale. 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(1). But this provision does not proscribe the individual customer's conduct. The United States Code governs this area: a "licensed dealer shall not transfer a firearm to any person" unless the dealer first complies with the NICS requirements. 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(1) (emphasis added).

A different provision of federal law regulates an individual's conduct: "It shall be unlawful for any person ... who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year ... to ... possess ... any firearm ... or to receive any firearm ...." 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (emphasis added). Congress specifically excluded individuals who have had their civil rights restored from the definition of "conviction." See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) ("Any conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a conviction for purposes of this chapter"). Florida law is the same. See § 790.23(2)(a), Fla. Stat. (2020) (providing...

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