Professional careers jeopardized by old charges

A local office of the Wisconsin State Public Defender recently assisted two former clients who encountered obstacles with their respective legal and medical careers (minor details have been changed to ensure client confidentiality).  These examples show that old criminal cases, even for relatively minor charges, can cause employment difficulties and frustrate professional advancement many years later.

The first former client recently passed an out-of-state bar examination, and he disclosed on his license application a 20-year-old Wisconsin misdemeanor charge.  When he called for assistance in interpreting the online court records, he learned (to his relief) that what he had always thought was a criminal conviction had actually been reduced to a non-criminal ordinance violation.  Although the original criminal charge remains accessible in Wisconsin’s court records, he was able to amend his license application to report that he does not have any criminal conviction record.  (It is not clear what effect a misdemeanor conviction would have had on his licensure, but now he won’t have to find out.)

The second former client had just started a medical school residency, and a warrant in a 15-year-old vandalism case showed up on her hospital’s background check.  She was at risk of being terminated from the residency because of an incident involving damage to the windshield of a parked car of which she was completely unaware.  It turned out that the case had been filed after she had graduated from high school and moved out of state.  It was an adult charge because she had attained age 17 before the charge was issued.  Upon verifying this chronology, the local prosecutor agreed to dismiss the charge upon payment of restitution.  So the aspiring doctor no longer has to worry about a pending criminal charge or an active warrant.  And, although the history of the charge remains publicly accessible, she remains in good standing in her residency program.

By virtue of both the passage of time and academic achievement, these two individuals have likely overcome potential barriers to professional licensing.  For others less fortunately situated, a record for a youthful indiscretion may have a more long-lasting negative effect on licensing and employment opportunities.  As both examples show, minor charges can show up on a background check decades later even when they didn’t result in a conviction.


Michael Tobin

Michael Tobin is Deputy Public Defender for the State of Wisconsin, where he has been engaged in law reform activities for more than 30 years. He understands how important collateral consequences are to a defense lawyer’s practice, and he has compiled comprehensive on-line practice materials linking consequences to triggering criminal offenses under state law.

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