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Chunn v. State ex rel. Mississippi Dep't of Ins.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

January 22, 2015

RICHARD A. CHUNN
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, EX REL. MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF INSURANCE

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/05/2013. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. WILLIAM A. GOWAN, JR.

FOR APPELLANT: WILLIAM ANDY SUMRALL.

FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, BY: MARK IVAH LAMPTON, BRANDON LEE WHITE.

DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE. LAMAR, KITCHENS, PIERCE AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR. CHANDLER, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY WALLER, C.J., RANDOLPH, P.J., AND KING, J.

OPINION

Page 885

DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

¶1. Thirty-three years ago in Texas, Richard Chunn pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana. That conviction did not prevent him from pursuing his twenty-plus-year career as a licensed bail-bond agent. Then, in 2011, the Legislature amended Section 83-39-3 of the Mississippi Code by adding a provision that prohibits all felons--regardless of the nature and dates of the offenses--from obtaining or renewing a bail-agent license. When the Mississippi Department of Insurance refused to renew his license, Chunn challenged the constitutionality of the statute by appealing to the Hinds County Circuit Court, which affirmed. Because the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we reverse and render.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶2. In 1981, Richard Chunn pleaded guilty in Texas to possession of marijuana. Thereafter, and for the past thirty-three years, he has committed no other violations of the law. For the past twenty years, Chunn has worked as a licensed bail agent. Then the Legislature changed the law in July 2011 so that no felon--regardless of the nature of the felony or how long ago it was committed--may hold a bail-agent license.[1]

¶3. In August 2011, Chunn applied to renew his license with the Mississippi Department of Insurance. As a result of this change in the law, the Department refused to renew his license.[2] He appealed and the Circuit Court of Hinds County affirmed. Chunn now appeals to this Court, challenging the constitutionality of the statute.

ANALYSIS

¶4. Chunn contends that the law unconstitutionally deprived him of his license to work as a bail agent. We agree. The State has failed to articulate any rational basis for precluding all felons--regardless of the nature or age of the felony--from holding bail-agent licenses. Accordingly, the licensing requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We reverse the decisions of the

Page 886

Hinds County Circuit Court and the Mississippi Department of Insurance.

¶5. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that " [n]o State shall make or enforce any law which shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." [3] This promise " must coexist with the practical necessity that most legislation classifies for one purpose or another, with resulting disadvantage to various groups or persons." [4] So, " if a law neither burdens a fundamental right nor targets a suspect class, we will uphold the legislative classification so long as it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end." [5] Because neither a fundamental right nor a suspect class is involved in this case,[6] the question is whether the law " bears a rational relation to some legitimate end" [7] or advances " a legitimate government interest." [8] While few laws have trouble surviving this lenient test, the one before us today does not.

¶6. Before proceeding with this analysis, we pause to point out that the issue is not whether the State has a legitimate interest in prohibiting some felons from engaging in this profession. Rather, the question is whether the State has, in this case and as applied to Chunn, articulated a legitimate governmental interest for prohibiting a person whose only crime was thirty years ago, for possession of marijuana--which, interestingly, is now legal in numerous states for medical purposes, and in four states for recreational use.

¶7. It is undisputed that the law in question denies all felons --regardless of the nature and age of the crime, and regardless of their record and conduct following the crime--the opportunity ever to obtain a bail-agent license.[9] Because Chunn challenged the statute's constitutionality, the State was required to provide its legitimate governmental interest.[10] It ...


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