HARRISBURG, Pa. — Concealed weapon permit-holders cannot sue a central Pennsylvania sheriff over permit notices he sent out on postcards, which they say violated their privacy rights, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The justices unanimously dismissed the former sheriff of Franklin County from what could become a class-action case, although other defendants remain.
The plaintiffs claim the postcards, informing people about permit approvals, denials, revocations and renewals, violate privacy rules in the Uniform Firearms Act which carry civil penalties for violations.
The decision reverses a finding by the Commonwealth Court, which said last year that the sheriff was not protected from lawsuits by the concept of “high public official immunity.”
“We decline to hold the General Assembly implicitly abrogated immunity for the sheriff through the use of general, undefined terms,” wrote Justice Kevin Dougherty. “We recognize permitting such implicit abrogation of high public official immunity would undermine the purpose and goal of the doctrine, the value of which has been consistently upheld and recognized by this court.”
A lawyer for the four anonymous people who are suing said they plan to ask the justices for reconsideration or re-argument about the constitutionality of high public official immunity. The decision released Wednesday said explicitly it concerned the law and was not decided on constitutional grounds.
Josh Autry, who represents the former sheriff, Franklin County and the sheriff’s office, said the case will return to county court. Outstanding issues include whether the case will be certified as class-action and how far back the statute of limitations goes.
At issue is state law that allows disclosure of concealed carry license applicants’ information only to courts or criminal justice agencies. Violations carry civil damages of $1,000 per occurrence as well as legal fees, and triple damages for those who can show how the policy actually harmed them.
The plaintiffs believe more than 10,000 licensees could be covered by the case.
A county judge previously had dismissed the entire case before it was revived by Commonwealth Court.