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Can Past Misdemeanors Derail Nursing Careers?


A nursing student said she was arrested on the eve of her high school graduation when she was 18 years old. She was at a party to which police were called. She ran away from the police and was charged with resisting arrest. The student wonders if the misdemeanor charge will prevent her from getting her RN license.

It's more than curiosity about criminal history

Because boards of nursing are charged to ensure that those who receive a license to practice nursing are safe and competent, they require all applicants for any nursing license to answer questions concerning their criminal history. These questions can be about criminal convictions or offenses, disciplinary actions, charges or arrests, convictions for DUI, and other major prior legal issues, as I wrote in another blog on this subject. An applicant's answers to these questions are then investigated by the board through criminal background checks (CBCs) and, in many states, fingerprinting. The state nurse practice act and its rules define how a criminal arrest or conviction might affect an application for a nursing license. Some state acts do not differentiate between a criminal history involving charges directly related to the practice of nursing, while other states consider such a connection. In addition, factors such as the conviction being expunged or the court records being sealed enter into the evaluation of an applicant's fitness for an RN license. In some states, if an applicant has been convicted of specific crimes, such as sex crimes or misdemeanors involving violence, the applicant is unable to apply for an RN license.

How boards determine licensure eligibility

The nursing student is understandably concerned about her past charges. However, it's not possible to give her a definitive answer about her chances of obtaining her license if all other prerequisites are met. This is because there are few always-applied rules to the decisions that boards of nursing make concerning past criminal behavior of an applicant, except those convictions that are clearly stated as prohibitive. Rather, boards of nursing make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. They may use guidelines established by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) that address criminal background checks. Although all the guidelines cannot be discussed in this blog, a few elements are worth mentioning, especially as they pertain to this reader's question. An initial step in the guidelines pertain to the nursing license application. Because the application asks about past criminal history, this student will need to divulge the charge to the board. The student did not state if the misdemeanor charge was dismissed, if it resulted in a conviction or a not-guilty finding, or if it resulted in any final judicial determination. Whatever occurred should be accurately and honestly described, and the following details should be included in the statement:

  • Date of offense(s)
  • Circumstances surrounding the offense
  • Court findings
  • Court documents
  • Current status of case(s)

The guidelines also suggest that based on a board of nursing's Minor Offense List, if the student's personal statement and the CBC report are consistent and her explanation plausible, a license should be issued. If, however, the student's explanation about the misdemeanor charge is in question, the board should continue their evaluation. It could explore factors such as:

  • How much time has elapsed since the last offense
  • Conduct and activity since the last offense
  • The nature and seriousness of the offense
  • The relationship of the offense to nursing care

What can a nursing student do?

If you are in a similar situation, keep these tips in mind:

  • Retain a nurse attorney or attorney to help you with the application.
  • With your attorney's guidance, follow your state nurse practice act and requirements in the application process concerning any criminal background.
  • Never provide your attorney or the board false information on your application.
  • Honestly and accurately provide details, documents, and other supporting proof of what occurred.
  • With your attorney's guidance, remember to include any mitigating circumstances.
  • Appear before the board with your attorney, if requested, so the board can interview you further to determine your credibility and gather details concerning your criminal history.

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