DUI/Drug Conviction and Your Professional License

Being convicted of a DUI or drug-related offense can be highly disruptive to your life, even if no jail time is involved. But many licensed professionals (e.g., doctors, nurses, LPCs) often end up facing additional complications they weren't expecting—in the form of a dreaded notice that the conviction has triggered an investigation by the state licensing board.

That's right: Even if there was no drinking or drugs while on the job; even though the DUI was completely unrelated to work; and even if you were wrongly convicted because of a “false positive;” you could still potentially have your professional license suspended or revoked over that incident.

Your livelihood hinges on your license. If you're facing an investigation over a DUI, DWI, drug possession, or another related charge, it's critical that you take steps to protect your career before it becomes a casualty of this mistake. Most state licensing boards take criminal convictions seriously—especially DUI—and you need expert legal help to minimize the damage and keep your career from being derailed.

The good news is that you aren't helpless in this situation. As a seasoned professional license attorney, Joseph D. Lento has helped many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are in the same situation as you are. Please read on to learn more about how DUIs and drug charges can affect your professional license and what you can do to right the ship.

Why does my DUI or drug charge have anything to do with my license to practice? Why does it matter to the licensing board?

The state licensing boards of many professions (if not most) have rules that permit them to investigate and discipline you for receiving a DUI or drug-related conviction. There are generally three primary reasons why this issue matters to these licensing boards:

  • A conviction over DUI or drug use suggests substance abuse. In addition to DUI rules, many licensing boards also have language in their policies that penalize substance abuse. The reason is that having a substance abuse problem could affect your performance and your judgment doing a job that could impact the well-being of others. In other words, substance abuse casts doubt on your state of mind and your competence as a doctor, nurse, counselor, social worker, etc.
  • A DUI/drug conviction breaks public trust. A professional license is effectively a contract with the public, and the state board vouches for you as someone to be trusted in your profession. For many professions, any criminal conviction represents a breach of that trust. For most, DUIs and drug charges, in particular, are a breach of public trust, because they damage your credibility and cast doubt on your judgment. The licensing board must then investigate to determine whether they can still back you as a trustworthy professional.

Which licensed professions are most likely to be penalized over DUI or drug offenses?

DUI and drug-related convictions are a sensitive issue for most licensing boards in virtually every state—so common, in fact, that it's best to assume a DUI will put your professional license at risk for disciplinary action no matter what type of license you hold. (Read through your licensing board's policies, rules and regulations, though, to be certain.)

That being said, certain licensed professions may be held to an even higher standard and face more severe penalties than others over DUI and drug charges. These include:

  • Professions that handle or dispense medications (e.g., doctors, nurses, pharmacists)
  • Professions that involve driving (e.g., EMTs, real estate brokers)
  • Professions that require higher levels of individual trust (e.g., counselors, social workers, psychologists, daycare center owners)

What actions could specifically trigger an investigation by my state licensing board over a DUI or drug conviction?

Since a criminal conviction is a matter of public record, it is fairly easy to see how a DUI or drug charge could trigger an investigation into your license. Some specific ways this could happen:

  • Law enforcement or the court reports it to your licensing board. This may happen automatically in many states.
  • You are required to self-report a criminal conviction to your licensing board and fail to do so. Many licensing boards require you to disclose DUI or other criminal convictions when they happen. Some may even require you to report arrests. If you don't, you could face disciplinary action on those grounds alone.
  • Your licensing board runs a criminal background check when you're applying for or renewing a license, and discovers the DUI.
  • A colleague, coworker, employer, client, or patient finds out about the conviction and files a complaint with your licensing board.

Can a DUI or drug-related conviction from another state jeopardize my professional license in my current state?

Yes, it can. Any criminal conviction becomes part of your public record, so if a licensing board in another state runs a criminal background check, the DUI is likely to show up. Most licensing boards also require you to disclose any criminal convictions, both when applying for your license and while your license is active. If they discover you were convicted on drug or DUI charges in another state and you did not disclose it, your license could be at risk. Likewise, if you are convicted of DUI in one state while being licensed in another, the state board that issued your license could still take disciplinary action against you.

If I am arrested for DUI or drug-related charges, but it doesn't result in a conviction, will my license still be in jeopardy?

It depends. The licensing boards consider an arrest to be a reflection of your moral standing in the community and a threat to your credibility, so they want even an arrest to be reported. Some states may automatically report an arrest to your licensing board even if it doesn't result in a conviction. However, in other situations, the board may only be concerned with DUI convictions—and in many cases, you won't even be required to self-report a DUI arrest unless it results in a conviction. Additionally, convictions are weighted more heavily than arrests, so if your professional licensing board does investigate an arrest, chances are the penalty will be milder (possibly even a verbal warning) if the charges are dismissed with no conviction.

All that being said, it can be difficult to predict whether an arrest or DUI charges alone will trigger disciplinary action from your licensing board, so in addition to hiring a criminal defense attorney for your DUI or drug charges, you may also want to consult with a professional license attorney in case the arrest impacts your license.

What does the disciplinary process look like for drug or DUI charges?

Most licensing boards follow a similar procedure for determining and imposing disciplinary actions. These processes may vary slightly by state and by profession, but generally speaking, if you're convicted for DUI or drug charges, you should be prepared for the following steps by your licensing board:

  • Investigation. When the licensing board receives notice about the conviction (either from you or from law enforcement), they will investigate to learn the details surrounding the arrest and/or conviction. This may include having you provide a written or oral explanation as to what happened, reviewing police records and court documents, and possibly interviewing witnesses.
  • Consent order. After reviewing the facts surrounding your DUI/drug conviction, the board may offer to negotiate a consent order with you as an alternative to formal hearings. A consent order is a binding agreement between you, the licensing board, and the state in which you admit to wrongdoing and voluntarily agree to accept the prescribed disciplinary actions.
  • Formal hearing. If a consent order is neither offered nor agreed to, the matter moves into a formal hearing, which may take place either in front of the board or before an Administrative Law Judge in a courtroom.
  • Final determination and action. After the formal hearing, the licensing board makes its determination as to what adverse actions it will take against your license.
  • Appeal. You have the right to appeal an adverse decision to the appellate courts in your state—although due to costs, this is usually recommended only if gross errors have occurred in the disciplinary process. (Most decisions on professional licenses are upheld by the appellate courts.)

In most cases, nothing about this process is ironclad. At any point, the board may decide (or be convinced) that the evidence against you is insufficient or that the violation does not warrant discipline, at which point they would dismiss the complaint. (This is where having a seasoned professional license attorney can help your case immensely.)

Am I guaranteed to lose my license over a DUI or drug conviction? If not, what other penalties might I face?

A DUI or drug conviction is by no means a “death sentence” to your license or your career. At any point in the disciplinary process described above, the board may opt either to dismiss the complaint or impose a lesser penalty that will allow you to keep your license. Having a good professional license attorney representing you and negotiating on your behalf can truly help mitigate the damage to your license in these situations.

If the licensing board decides to let you keep your license, it may choose to impose one or more of the following actions as an alternative to revoking it:

  • License suspension. The board may have you step down from your practice for a time.
  • License restriction. The board may place limitations on your license, prohibiting certain activities.
  • Fines and fees. The board may require payment of money as a penalty.
  • Mandatory treatment. The board demand you complete an approved substance abuse treatment program as a condition for keeping your license.
  • Probation. You may be monitored or supervised by the board for a time.
  • Formal or verbal reprimand. The board may simply give you a warning or citation.

Could a DUI or drug conviction do damage to my career even if I get to keep my license?

Yes, it could. Any disciplinary action against your license (except, perhaps, for a verbal warning) becomes public, usually appearing on a database of registered license holders for your profession. Any interested party (e.g., employer, client, or patient) can look up this information, and they may be less inclined to work with you if there are negative actions on your record. Additionally, if your DUI conviction is made public by other means (e.g., reported by local media), it could damage your credibility with the public.

Should I agree to a consent order if it is offered?

It depends on the circumstances and the possible outcome. If some form of disciplinary action is likely, there may be some room to negotiate for a lesser penalty on a consent order—and even if the consent order requires you to surrender your license, the consent order itself is a sign of cooperation, so it may be easier to get your license reinstated at some point in the future. On the other hand, if there are extenuating circumstances that the board is refusing to consider, or if there is no apparent benefit to signing a consent order, your attorney may advise you that your chances for a better outcome are greater by mounting a defense at a formal hearing. Whatever the case, for best results, always consult with a professional license attorney before agreeing to a consent order.

If my DUI or drug conviction has been sealed or expunged, could it still impact my license?

In a few cases, possibly, but it's far less likely. In most situations, an expungement gives you legal permission to say you were never convicted of a crime when asked, nor can it be held against you—so for all intents and purposes, the DUI never happened. However, some licensing boards still want you to disclose DUI, drug, or other criminal convictions even if they have been expunged from your record. Our advice is to consult with a professional license attorney in your state to determine whether or not you are required to report an expunged conviction or whether it could have an impact on your license.

Do I have a better chance of avoiding disciplinary action by self-reporting a DUI or drug conviction to my state licensing board?

It depends. While there is no guarantee that self-reporting will cause the licensing board to go easier on you, it does signify your compliance and cooperation with the rules. That will likely have a more positive effect on their review of the case, and in some cases, may even help you avoid a mark on your public record. That being said, it's practically a guarantee that the board will not look kindly on the matter if you're required to self-report a DUI and fail to do so—because that constitutes a violation of the license in itself. Check your state licensing board's policies and standards regarding self-disclosure, and consult with a license attorney if in doubt.

What is an alternative-to-discipline program?

An alternative-to-discipline program is an option offered by some states and licensing boards that allows licensed professionals to go through an approved treatment program (e.g., for drug or alcohol abuse) as an alternative to losing their license. In some cases, alternative-to-discipline may even keep your public record clean of adverse actionsAlternative-to-discipline programs are most common in the nursing profession as established by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), but they can be found in other professions, as well. You may also find alternative-to-discipline options under different names; in New York, for example, it's called a Professional Assistance Program (PAP).

Am I required to disclose to my patients, clients, etc., that my license is being investigated over a DUI/drug conviction?

Typically, no. While you may not have control over whether the DUI itself is made public, you aren't required to publicize that your license is under investigation. The primary exception would be if you work for a firm or facility that requires you to disclose this information to them as part of the terms of your employment.

How do I respond if a client or patient asks me about a DUI, drug conviction, or license investigation?

While you're not legally obligated to discuss these matters with clients or patients, if word has gotten out about your DUI arrest and conviction, or that your license is in jeopardy, it may be in your best interest to respond when someone asks. We recommend answering honestly without giving unnecessary details. Avoid the urge to be defensive, as this usually doesn't reflect well. Feel free to confirm the DUI, admit the mistake, and even feel free to say you're undergoing treatment if you feel comfortable doing so. As to your license investigation, advise them that you are cooperating with the investigation, but you plan to continue providing excellent service to your customers, clients, or patients in the meantime.

Is it necessary for me to hire a professional license defense attorney, or can I resolve a drug use complaint on my own?

It is always your right to represent yourself in any professional license investigation or hearing, but your chances of a more favorable outcome are much greater if you hire the right attorney to help you. Here's why:

  • Professional license discipline is a legal matter. Your professional license represents a legal agreement with the state, so investigations and hearings concerning your license are a legal matter. When handling legal matters, you will do better having a legal expert representing you.
  • The licensing board is not on your side. If you believe you can “fix” this problem by simply “talking it over” casually with the licensing board, you are mistaken. The board doesn't exist to protect you, but to protect the public from bad actors—and when you are under investigation, the board holds you (and anything you say) potentially suspect. They are taking this allegation seriously, and so should you. Hiring an attorney demonstrates that you're serious about resolving this matter with the board.
  • You are at a disadvantage in disciplinary hearings. The state licensing board understands its own disciplinary procedures better than you do, so even though they may make an effort to be “fair,” you're still entering the process at a disadvantage. Hiring a license defense attorney helps you enter the process on a more equal footing.

When should I consider hiring a professional license defense attorney regarding my DUI or drug conviction?

Essentially, any interaction you have with the licensing board over your DUI or drug conviction will benefit by having an experienced license defense attorney involved. Some specific instances in which you should consider hiring the attorney:

  • After you are arrested and/or charged with a DUI or drug-related crime. Bear in mind that you may actually want to hire two attorneys—one to defend against the criminal charges themselves and one to help protect your professional license (although some, like Joseph D. Lento, have unparalleled experience in both areas).
  • Before you self-report a DUI or drug conviction to the licensing board. A good licensing attorney can offer guidance through this process as well as report the DUI to the board as your duly appointed legal representative.
  • When you first receive notice that your license is under investigation due to DUI or drug-related charges. The sooner you involve a good attorney, the better your chances are for a more favorable outcome with the licensing board.

Whatever the circumstances behind your DUI or drug conviction, you don't have to stand by and allow a single misstep, a lapse in judgment, a misunderstanding, or even a legitimate addiction to derail your career. Protect your future by hiring an experienced professional license defense attorney to help you obtain the best possible outcome. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, and his additional experience in criminal defense makes him uniquely qualified to handle DUI and drug-related issues with your licensing board. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm are committed to answering your questions about Physician License Defense, Nursing License Defense, Pharmacist License Defense, Psychologist and Psychiatrist License Defense, Dental License Defense, Chiropractic License Defense, Real Estate License Defense, Professional Counseling License Defense, and Other Professional Licenses law issues in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento will gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact him today to schedule an appointment.

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