Altering Firearm Serial Numbers in Pennsylvania: Inferences, Presumptions The Prosecution’s Burden in VUFA Cases

Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act (often called VUFA charges) covers any violation pertaining to guns and other firearms in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Violations of the Act are usually felony offenses but section 6108 (carrying a firearm on the streets of Philadelphia) is a misdemeanor offense.  Most times however, a gun charge subjects a person’s to potentially a state prison sentence or an extended period of probation.  In addition to restricting who may carry a gun or a firearm (Section 6105 – Possession by a person who is prohibited because of certain enumerated offenses & 6106 – Possession of gun or firearm without a license outside the home or business) the Act also addresses the manner in which a person may maintain that firearm or gun. Section 6110.2 states that a person can’t possess a firearm that has an altered, changed, removed, or obliterated identification (serial) number. Under this statute, a person may legally possess a gun but still be breaking the law if that firearm has an altered or obliterated serial number.

The prosecution, however, must prove more than just the mere possession of a gun or firearm with an altered or obliterated serial number. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Ricketts stated that possession of a firearm with an alternated or obliterated mark alone may not be enough to prove a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the Rickett’s case for instance the trial court found that in addition to the altered number, the accused tried to get rid of the gun prior to his arrest. The court found that a trial court could make a permissible inference but not a rebuttable presumption.

The difference between an inference and a presumption could be critical when a person is charged under section 6110.2 which is a felony of the second degree.  A presumption can be made without the aid of proof in some situations. A rebuttable presumption is rejected if proven to be false or at least called into sufficient doubt by the evidence. An inference, however, is the process of reasoning by which a fact is established as a logical consequence from other facts already proved or admitted.

Pennsylvania criminal courts have found a presumption unconstitutional (violating the Due Process Clause) because it effectively shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution onto the defense. The burden of proof is never on the accused and always on the district attorney (prosecution). Further, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said that the prosecution must support this inference with facts that establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—the standard in all criminal cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and every jurisdiction in the United States.

If you have questions about guns or firearms crimes, call our office (215) 240-7377 or read my book Commonwealth v. You. You may also want to subscribe to our monthly Newsletter. These resources are free and available on our website.  For more information on how our law firm handles firearms crimes visit our gun crimes page.