JAKE NICHOLS VS. CHIEF OF POLICE OF NATICK & OTHERS
[License to Carry a Firearm]
Jake Nichols applied to the Natick Police Department for a Class A (large capacity) license to carry in October 2015.
Nichols had a fifteen-year history of prescription drug abuse, an addiction that had been facilitated in part by his position as a licensed pharmacist. He had been in recovery for five years, was reemployed, and his pharmacy license had been reinstated, although he remained on probation with the Board of Registration in Pharmacy. Natick Chief of Police James Hicks ultimately found Nichols to be an “unsuitable” person and denied him the application for a license to carry.Nichols brought his case to court. A judge of the District Court held an evidentiary hearing, made factual findings, and concluded that the chief’s denial of the LTC was not arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.
The decision was appealed to Superior Court. A judge of this Court ultimately reversed the decision of the District Court.
The Massachusetts Court of Appeals concluded that the Superior Court ruling exceeded the bounds of permissible certiorari review and reversed judgment.
Jake Nichols, 39 years old at the time of his application, was in recovery from a long-standing drug addiction. He began using Ritalin and other drugs in pharmacy school at the age of nineteen. After graduating with a doctorate degree in pharmacy, he married, had children, and worked as a pharmacist for several pharmacies and health care providers. During this time he became addicted to Adderall, Ritalin, and Vicodin. He was able to hide his addiction from those he was close with.
Although for some periods Nichols was able to remain drug free, he relapsed periodically and his drug use worsened. He was terminated from several pharmacy jobs but eventually began working at a Waltham-based oncology center called Oncomed. While employed at Oncomed, Nichols uttered false prescriptions using names of unsuspecting doctors, falsified prescription slips on the computer, and diverted drugs to himself. The company eventually caught onto what he was doing and in 2010 Nichols was fired. He voluntarily entered an inpatient drug treatment program and surrendered his pharmacy license.
For his actions at Oncomed, Nichols was charged with 468 criminal charges of identity fraud, uttering false prescriptions, false health care claims, obtaining drugs by fraud, and using a false registration number. Nichols admitted to sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilt on eighteen charges, which were continued without a finding.
He remained on supervised probation until July 2014 when he was able to successfully complete his probation and the pending charges were dismissed. As part of a voluntary agreement, the Board of Registration in Pharmacy suspended Nichols’s license while Nichols agreed to participate in a treatment program geared toward health care professionals.
Nichols participated in and completed the treatment program, and his license was conditionally reinstated subject to a four-year probationary period beginning in 2015. He remains in counseling.
Nichols claimed to have applied for his license for the purpose of recreational shooting and ultimately becoming a firearms instructor. Detective Edward Arena agreed with the Natick Chief of Police that Nichols was not a suitable applicant at the time of his request for the license. Arena was concerned about the length of Nichols’s addiction, the relatively short amount of time since he had completed his court-ordered probation, and Nichols’s relapses.
The Chief testified that he found Nichols to be unsuitable at the time that he applied for his license based “largely on [Nichols’s] record and appearances in [c]ourt” and Nichols’s admission to sufficient facts with respect to charges of fraud in his role as a pharmacist, among other reasons. The District Court judge found that the Chief had made a complete and thorough investigation and had denied the license because of the risks associated with addiction, the fraudulent nature of the charged offenses, the public safety risks associated with “the mix of firearms and substance abuse”, and “the short period of time that has [e]llapsed from the time of the charges/addiction to today”.
On certiorari review, a judge of the Superior Court concluded that the Chief’s denial of the license was arbitrary and capricious, because his testimony demonstrated a categorical opposition to approving a license to carry for a recovering addict. The Court determined that that the Chief erred as a matter of law because there had been no showing of violent conduct.
According to Commonwealth law, “[A] licensing authority may deny [an] application…if, in a reasonable exercise of discretion, the licensing authority determines that the applicant…is unsuitable to be issued…a license to carry.”The so-called “suitable person” standard gives the licensing authority “considerable latitude” to exercise broad discretion on license issuance. A licensing authority must issue a license if a judge finds that the licensing authority had “no reasonable ground” for denying the license or, even if the applicant is deemed suitable, the licensing authority will determine whether the applicant had a “proper purpose” in seeking a license to carry.
The Court referenced one case, Chief of Police of Worcester vs. Holden(2015), that in a five year old incident case of domestic abuse that it was “within [the defendant’s] grasp” to engage in evaluation and treatment that would “alleviate [the chief’s] legitimate concerns” over issuing a license. Nichols cited this case in presenting his argument that a licensing authority must consider an applicant’s rehabilitation in determining stability, and that past addiction may not serve as a permanent disqualifier. Nichols characterized the Chief’s disqualification determination as “immutable”.
The Court agreed with the District Court that the Superior Court judge erred in making a factual finding that the Chief’s decision was based on belief that addiction is a disqualifying status that can never be abated, regardless of rehabilitation.
The Court added that although neither the Chief nor the District Court judge stated that they believe a recovering addict is permanently unsuitable, neither described a preset duration of sobriety that Nichols must achieve, or any explicit conditions Nichols must fulfill, before he would become suitable for a license. However, the Court stated that licensing authorities are not required to provide denied applicants a definitive time period in which a past act will no longer render the applicant unsuitable. Each applicant can be considered individually in light of the extent of the applicant’s past and the nature of the applicant’s recovery.
The Court ruled that the Nichols’s citing of Holdenof “violence [being] the disqualifying individual characteristic under the suitability standard” misapprehends the statute on licenses to carry. The Court asserted that the goal of firearms control legislation in Massachusetts is to limit access to deadly weapons by irresponsible persons. The statute on licenses to carry does not limit its scope to those involved in violent crime. It also severely limits access to firearms for those who have been committed to a hospital or institution for mental illness, alcohol or substance abuse.
The Court concluded its reasoning by affirming that the danger of negligent discharge of a gun in the hands of a person under the influence of amphetamines or opiates was evident. The District Court judge did not commit a substantial error of law when she accepted the Chief’s determination that the mix of firearms and substance abuse was a public safety risk.
The Court ruled that the judgment of the Superior Court is REVERSED and a new judgment was to be entered in the Superior Court AFFIRMING THE DENIAL of Nichols’s license to carry.
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Source: Jake Nichols vs. Chief of Police of Natick & Others, 18-P-363