California Supreme Court reverses appeal court decision in handgun identification number case

By Kyla Asbury | Jul 9, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO – The California Supreme Court recently issued a decision reversing an order by an appeals court in a case involving handgun safety laws requiring dual placement of microscopic identification numbers.

National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) argued that a statute in the state's penal code was unenforceable because it would be impossible to implement dual-placement microstamping technology.

The California Supreme Court agreed with NSSF and reversed a ruling by the Fresno County Superior Court.

Justice Goodwin H. Liu authored the June 28 opinion. It was agreed in by Justices Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, Carol A. Corrigan, Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, Leondra R. Kruger and Presiding Justice of Division Four of the Court of Appeal-Second Appellate District Norman L. Epstein. Justice Ming W. Chin authored a concurring opinion.

The California Legislature enacted the Unsafe Handgun Act in 1999. It was amended in 2007 to include semiautomatic pistols that "are not already listed on the roster" if they didn't have a microscopic identification number imprinted in at least two places on the pistol.

NSSF filed a complaint because it said it was impossible to implement the technology on the pistols. The trial court granted a motion for judgment in favor of the state's attorney general. 

On appeal, the appeals court held that NSSF may present evidence of the impossibility and a judiciary could decide if it was actually impossible. 

The Supreme Court then granted review in the dispute because Civil Code Section 3531 contains a declaration that the "law never requires impossibilities."

"In sum, the case law recognizes that a statute may contain an implied exception for noncompliance based on impossibility where such an exception reflects a proper understanding of the legislative intent behind the statute," Liu wrote. "We are not aware of any appellate precedent in California that has invoked Civil Code Section 3531 or impossibility of compliance to invalidate a statute itself."

The court noted in the opinion that neither the text nor the purpose of the act contemplates that a showing of impossibility "can excuse compliance with the statutory requirement once the statute goes into effect."

Liu wrote that the court couldn't express a view on the validity of the certification but it could conclude that the statute does not authorize courts to "independently carve out exceptions for impossibility after that administrative determination has been made."

Because of this, the court reversed the judgment and remanded the case back to the appeals court for the court to affirm the trial court's grant of judgment to the attorney general.

Chin filed a separate concurring opinion, stating that while he agreed with the majority on what Civil Code Section 3531 meant, he disagreed with the majority's "broad holding" that statute did not "authorize courts to independently carve out exceptions for impossibility after (the Department of Justice's) administrative determination has been made."

Supreme Court of California case number S239397

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