Ask a Nurse: I Was Arrested — Can I Become a Nurse?

Jody Dugan, RN, BSN
Updated June 7, 2024
Edited by
Can I become a nurse if I was arrested? The simple answer is that it depends on your state and whether your conviction can be cleared, among other factors.
Nurse in scrubs holding a paper and looking at a laptopCredit: damircudic / Getty Images

In our Ask a Nurse series, experienced nurses provide an insider look at the nursing profession by answering your questions about nursing careers, degrees, and resources.

Question: Can I become a nurse if I was arrested?

Have you been arrested and are wondering what charges can stop you from being a nurse? The answer to this question depends on the nature and type of your arrest and whether you were convicted, among other factors.

Not all offenses are the same — far from it. While there are criminal offenses that can bar you from holding a nursing license, most convictions do not affect your ability to work as a nurse.

Educating yourself on your state laws and following the review process can put you in the best position to get into nursing school and thrive as a nurse after graduation.

This article discusses different criminal convictions and how they may affect nursing school, licensure, and finding employment in the nursing industry.

How Having a Criminal Conviction Could Affect Getting a Nursing License

Many employers require a pre-employment criminal background check. Applying for a nursing license is no exception.

Even if you are accepted into a nursing school, the licensing board in your state may not grant you a nursing license. Most state boards of nursing (BONs) require you to provide fingerprints and will conduct state and federal criminal background checks.

Misdemeanor and felony convictions must be disclosed on your application. Depending on the questioning, this may include crimes with a suspended sentence where you completed probation and your record is closed.

You may have to supplement your application with records of your offense for the nursing board to review. This supporting documentation would include official court documents about the conviction, showing the date and circumstance surrounding your arrest, disciplinary action, final disposition of the case, and completion of sentencing.

You can request a copy of your certified court documents at the Clerk of Courts in the county where you were convicted. Criminal arrest records can be obtained from your state or local department of law enforcement for a fee.

A personal letter of explanation addressed to the board should accompany these official records. Contents of the letter should include an introduction and description of the issue, sharing your position on it, addressing any opposition the board members may have, and providing evidence to support positive lifestyle adjustments.

Applicants with criminal backgrounds are reviewed by the state’s BON on a case-by-case basis. In some states, the department may request an interview or informal conference to discuss your position.

The type of misdemeanor or felony plays a key role in whether your application is accepted or denied. Ultimately, your state’s nursing board reserves the right to deny your license.

Common Examples of Misdemeanors

  • Driving under the influence (DUI)
  • Simple assault or battery
  • Possession of controlled substances or drugs
  • Some cybercrimes, such as bullying or stalking
  • Petty theft, including shoplifting
  • Vandalism
  • Trespassing
  • Minor sex crimes, such as indecent exposure and prostitution
  • Resisting arrest

Common Examples of Felonies

  • Drug crimes, such as trafficking, possession with intent to sell, distribution, money laundering, or manufacturing
  • Violent crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault
  • Grand theft
  • Sex crimes, such as sexual assault or child molestation

What Charges Can Stop You From Being a Nurse?

Certain types of criminal convictions constitute grounds for denial of a nursing license or for practicing as a nurse. While states may differ in their laws, check your state BON to identify what offenses impact your license application.

Some state nursing regulatory boards automatically disqualify candidates with certain offenses, while others review the convictions on an individual basis.

For example, the Florida Nurse Practice Act lists offenses that would automatically derail a nursing career. Such felonies include:

  • Forcible felony such as murder, treason, voluntary manslaughter, manslaughter, kidnapping, assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, false imprisonment, aggravated arson
  • Sex-related offenses, such as prostitution, incest, and pornography
  • Controlled substance and drug-related crimes
  • Theft, robbery, and related crimes
  • Fraudulent practices
  • Abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a child, disabled adult, or aged person
  • Indecent exposure or lewdness

All Convictions Must Be Disclosed, but Not All Convictions Are the Same

While all convictions must be disclosed on a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse license application, not all offenses will automatically bar you from being approved for licensure. Again, depending on the state laws and the nature of the crime, you may be granted a nursing license.

There are a handful of states, including New York, that currently do not require further background screening at the state level for nurses. However, background checks are mandatory to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which is itself required to become a practicing nurse.

The Utah Division of Professional Licensing created easy-to-read guidelines in relation to criminal history and decisions on nursing licensing approval. Factors to consider include:

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    Nature and seriousness of the offense.

    If you apply for a license in Utah and have a burglary conviction within 10 years, the BON will not grant you licensure. However, they will review your case with a driving under the influence (DUI) conviction, even if it occurred the month prior to your application.

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    Time has elapsed since the occurrence.

    Sometimes, if your crime is more recent, it can count against you when applying for licensure. In Utah, a conviction of failing to stop at command of law enforcement automatically triggers a BON review if the arrest happened within a year of the application date. However, if it happened over a year, the BON will not review the incident. On the other hand, a shoplifting conviction triggers a review even after five years.

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    Your age when the crime was committed.

    If you committed the offense as a juvenile, often your case is sealed or expunged by the time you reach adulthood. Twenty-four states have passed a law that automatically expunges or seals convictions by minors in certain situations.

    If a minor shows evidence of remorse or absence of premeditation, criminal offenses are deemed youthful indiscretions in Texas. In these cases, you can move forward towards your nursing goal.

Expunged, Sealed, Vacated, or Reversed Convictions

Expunged, sealed, vacated, or reversed convictions may not have an impact on your application for a nursing license. This varies by state laws.

As of March 2024, 17 states plus Washington, D.C., allow courts to expunge felonies under certain conditions. In opposition, a handful of others deny the court’s authority to expunge, seal, or vacate any adult conviction.

Expungement is the process of legally removing or dismissing a conviction or arrest from your record. Generally, you may not have to disclose an expunged offense in states with an expungement law. Consult an attorney to pursue an expunged conviction.

When a criminal history record is sealed, the conviction on your record is removed from public view but can still be accessed through a court order. Specific criteria must be met to obtain a sealed conviction. This varies by state.

When you vacate a conviction, you are setting aside the verdict. This nullifies the judgment on your case, and it appears as though your trial never occurred. This does not mean your case is over. Prosecutors may retry the case unless it was vacated for insufficient evidence.

You can have your conviction reversed when a court of appeals rules that a lower court’s judgment was incorrect and reverses the verdict. The lower court must then dismiss the original verdict and retry the case.

The criminal system is usually more lenient with juveniles. However, some states may require you to disclose minor-related expunged or sealed convictions if you are applying for a state-issued professional license. It’s important to visit your state BON to understand how this affects you and your candidacy.

How to Expunge Your Conviction

To expunge your conviction, you will need to seek legal counsel. The attorney should be familiar with state laws for expungement to guide you in the right direction. The expungement process varies by state, but there are a few common steps to take:

  1. Disclose your criminal record to your state board of registered nursing. Withholding your criminal record can be grounds for the board’s denial of your application.
  2. Once your criminal record is expunged, you may need to provide a letter to your state licensing board supplementing your application.
  3. Offer a letter of rehabilitation. This is an opportunity to show evidence you have taken steps toward self-improvement. Communicate counseling, recovery, and rehabilitation programs in this message. You may also want to include letters of recommendation or employer evaluations.

Criminal Charges and Nursing School

Prior criminal convictions can influence your enrollment in nursing school. Some universities perform a background check; others may not.

The University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, one of the nation’s leading nursing schools, requires prospective students to complete an application for an extensive background check. This includes a state criminal record check, a nationwide sex offender search, FBI fingerprinting, and state child abuse clearance.

To increase your chance of acceptance to a nursing program, research schools and their enrollment requirements. Contact the admissions office and review the school’s website to understand how they address specific criminal charges. You can also contact your state BON or health department.

It varies by school, but admission criteria for most nursing programs involve criminal background checks. You may have to supplement your application with a copy of your official court records and a letter of explanation written by you.

Documented evidence of completed counseling and treatment, professional recommendations from probation officers or support group sponsors, and proof of completion of community service or self-improvement programs should also be included.

Understanding Your Options

If you aspire to become a nurse, it is important to advocate for yourself and document sincere efforts of self-improvement. All scenarios tell their own story, but everyone should have the opportunity to be reevaluated and offered a second chance.

To understand your arrest record and its impact on your career trajectory, research the school you are applying to, contact your state board, and reach out to the health department and your state’s education department.

In Summary:

  • You can qualify to be a nurse even with an arrest record, but specifics vary by state, offense, and other factors.
  • Some convictions won’t affect your nursing license or application, including if your conviction was expunged, sealed, vacated, or reversed.
  • To get your conviction expunged, you will need to consult an attorney.
  • Start with the school you are applying to, your state board, your department of health, or your state’s education department to see how an arrest record may impact you.