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Ambiguous language about moral character may be replaced

Special to the Legal News

Published: July 18, 2019

With about one in five Ohioans requiring a state-issued occupational license in order to work, a Springfield legislator believes it's time to make more clear exactly which criminal offenses should disqualify an applicant for such a license.

Rep. Kyle Koehler, the Republican sponsor of the Fresh Start Act, noted many occupational licensing boards automatically disqualify individuals who have been to jail or prison from obtaining a license - regardless of the amount of time that has passed or the relevance of their past crimes to the licensed profession.

"Certifications for which a person might need a license in the state of Ohio range from landscape architects to referees to auctioneers," Koehler said during sponsor testimony of the measure. "Requirements for licensure may include specialized training, experience, and testing.

Examples include announcers and horseshoers, licensed by the State Racing Commission; lead inspectors and sanitarians, licensed by the Department of Health; motor vehicle repair operators, licensed by the Motor Vehicle Repair Board; and auctioneers and certified livestock managers, licensed by the Department of Agriculture.

"The problem lies in broad, ambiguous language riddled throughout the Ohio Revised Code when describing character requirements," the lawmaker continued. "References to applicants meeting 'moral character requirements,' being 'of good moral character,' 'of high character and integrity,' or having 'a good reputation for integrity' allow licensing boards to bar individuals from many professions for just one criminal violation."

Filed as House Bill 263, the Fresh Start bill would require licensing boards to state which specific convictions disqualify a person from working.

"This bill eliminates 'blanket bans' and would allow individuals who have been convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses with the opportunity to be considered for these licenses," Koehler added.

Under the bill, an employer may not disqualify an applicant solely or in part on a conviction of, judicial finding of guilt of, or plea of guilty to an offense; a criminal charge that does not result in a conviction, judicial finding of guilt, or plea of guilty; a nonspecific qualification such as "moral turpitude" or lack of "moral character;" or a disqualifying offense included on the authority's list of specific offenses adopted under the bill, if consideration of that offense occurs after the time periods allowed under the bill.

The Fresh Start Act only would apply to initial licensure only - not renewals.

Another provision of the bill would require a state licensing authority that refuses initial licensure because of a specific disqualifying offense to notify the applicant of the reason for the refusal, the applicant's right to an administrative hearing, the earliest date the applicant may reapply and the individual's ability to offer evidence of rehabilitation upon reapplication, analysis of the bill provided.

The legislation places the burden of proving the relationship between a disqualifying offense and the licensed occupation on the state licensing authority in any proceeding reviewing the authority's denial of an initial license based on a disqualifying offense, Ohio Legislative Service Commission attorney Paul Luzzi wrote.

Koehler said his bill would prohibit boards from looking back more than five years for individuals that have paid their penalty for committing nonviolent, nonsexual crimes. Research tells us that an individual who has not committed a crime after five- years have passed since conviction is no more likely to commit a crime than the average person.

"If we are to truly reform criminal justice in Ohio, improve our workforce and empower individuals to have a second chance at the American Dream, we must reform Ohio's occupational licensing structure," the lawmaker said.

Seven fellow House members back HB 263 as cosponsors. The bill had not been scheduled a second hearing before House Commerce and Labor Committee at time of publication.

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