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Barring felons from licensure is unconstitutional, federal judge rules

A state law categorically barring felons from holding a precious metals license was unconstitutional; the law had no rational connection to its stated purpose of preventing fraud in the profession, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled September 26 (Barletta v. Rilling and The City of Norwalk).

Michael Barletta, whose Connecticut precious metals license expired in 2003, was convicted of narcotics dealing in 2006. After serving three years in prison, he applied for a precious metal dealer’s license with the office of the police chief of the city of Norwalk. However, the chief denied his application based on a state law that prohibits convicted felons from holding such a license.

Barletta brought suit against the city and the Police Chief Harry Rilling; he claimed that the law, by categorically denying all felons a precious metals license, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses. The case went before Judge Stefan Underhill of the state’s federal District Court.

While Judge Underhill acknowledged that that neither a fundamental right or suspect classification, which would have triggered stronger constitutional protections than the standard he eventually used to evaluate the case, was implicated and that the statute was intended to further the “reasonable goal” of decreasing fraud, he nonetheless ruled that the statute was unconstitutional.

“The Connecticut Legislature has made the existence of a felony conviction a proxy for an examination of an individual’s background, character and suitability for license,” Underhill explained. “The State’s goals are legitimate, but the ban is so far-reaching that its service of these goals is diluted to the point of coincidence. A proxy that serves its purpose only by happenstance is arbitrary and fails rational basis review.”

“Placing limitations on employment opportunities for person convicted of a felony through occupational licensing regimes is an unfortunately familiar legislative device.”

In this case, he continued, “by substituting a felony conviction for an individualized determination of suitability for licensure, the legislature rendered [the statute] standardless.”

Noting that the statute allowed people actually convicted of misdemeanor fraud involving precious metals to retain a license, Underhill wrote that the statute was “both grossly over-inclusive and grossly under-inclusive as a proxy for serving the State’s stated goals.”

“To survive even rational basis review, the defendants and the State must do more than suggest that some felons would be unsuitable for licensure. Most irrational classifications, for example, left-handed people, obese people, people with tattoos, people born on the first day of the month, divorced people and college dropouts, will include some persons properly excluded from licensure . . . A rational nexus between a conviction for any and every felony and the fitness to act as a precious metals dealer simply does not exist,” the court said.

Having ruled the statute unconstitutional, Underhill issued a permanent injunction preventing its enforcement. Barletta, he stated, was free to reapply for a license.

However, the judge noted, if he did, the police chief could still use Barleta’s felony conviction as a “significant factor” in denying him a license.