When Shayne Gatlin opened his locksmith business outside of Dallas more than 30 years ago, Fred Akers coached the Longhorns and the Dow Jones industrial average was a tenth its current level. Over the decades, he worked hard and grew his operation to three trucks and a retail shop, eventually acquiring more than 100,000 customers. The Better Business Bureau granted him its top rating.
For years, locksmithing in Texas was unregulated. But in 2004, state lawmakers decided that people trained at picking locks needed to be more closely monitored for the public’s safety, and so passed a law requiring those in the trade to hold a government-regulated license. For Gatlin, that meant revealing his embarrassing past: A quarter-century earlier, at the age of 19, he’d been the get-away driver for his roommates as they broke into a home. He’d spent five years on probation for the crime.
But the Private Security Program, a regulatory arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety put in charge of overseeing the profession, issued him the license anyway, deciding that enough time had passed since his crime — the court actually had set aside the indictment after Gatlin completed his probation and paid restitution — and that Gatlin’s by-then long and successful track record of lawful conduct outweighed one bad teenage decision. Each year after, when Gatlin reapplied for a new state license, the agency renewed its permission for him to continue working in his profession.
Which is why, this past June, Gatlin was perplexed to receive a letter informing him that suddenly, after 31 years of unblemished work, a dozen of those state-licensed, the very same agency had suddenly determined he posed an unacceptable threat to public safety. His application to pursue his 32nd year of locksmithing was being denied.
For the past six months Gatlin has been unable to work as a locksmith. Citing his lack of a license, the BBB terminated his membership, erasing his top rating.
“This is so wrong in so many ways,” said Jim Hetchler, past-president of the Texas Locksmiths Association, who reviewed Gatlin’s case but does not know him. “He is getting screwed.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say the state’s decision illustrates the irrationality of so-called blanket bans — laws that summarily and permanently bar a convicted criminal from holding a government-issued license. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, a U.S. Justice Department project that tracks employment and licensing fallout for people with criminal records, counts just under 200 separate occupational Texas laws that automatically disqualify a person from licensed work due to a criminal conviction.
It’s not entirely clear why the Department of Public Safety denied Gatlin’s license after approving it every year since 2005. A spokesman for the department, Tom Vinger, said it would not comment on the pending case.
Documents suggest Gatlin checked a single wrong box on a new agency form. Gatlin said a technological upgrade at the bureau could have been responsible for his sudden rejection. Ever since the agency began regulating locksmithing, he said, it has had a fingerprint card on file for him, part of the criminal background check it performs to ensure applicants meet the legal standards for the profession. Gatlin had also self-disclosed his 1980 crime, as required by law.
But this year the agency began collecting digital fingerprints, he said. When Gatlin submitted his, “that’s when they kicked my application back.”
That appears to have set into motion a mandatory new review of his background, said Steve Thornton, Gatlin’s attorney. But rather than acknowledging Gatlin’s long and clean track record, court records show, the Private Security Program instead treated him as a new locksmith applicant. That meant applying an inflexible rule it had adopted in 2014 stating that any applicant with a house burglary conviction, no matter how long ago it occurred, was to be rejected.
“He was simply expelled,” Thornton said.
Security occupation reforms “a nonstarter”
To rehabilitation advocates, such so-called blanket bans are vestiges of an outdated view of crime and redemption. “We either believe in the capacity of someone to achieve rehabilitation, or we believe the crime is a permanent bar on employability,” said Douglas Smith, whose work as a policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition is informed by the six years he spent in prison.
Research backs up the former, experts say. Marc Levin, vice president of Criminal Justice Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, points out that studies show steady employment to be a reliable bulwark against recidivism. After seven years without reoffending, he added, the odds of a person repeating his crime is the same as that of someone with no criminal record.
As a result, reformers have pushed for licensing agencies, as much as possible, to evaluate each applicant’s background individually. “There’s a lot of agreement that we need to be more sensible with licensing questions — asking whether having a criminal conviction prohibition actually keeps the consumer safe,” Smith said.
In 2009, Texas passed a set of new laws giving greater discretion to some state licensing agencies to weigh an applicant’s criminal past against evidence of rehabilitation. The law didn’t apply to the DPS, however, which regulates private guards, alarm installers, armored car couriers and guard dog handlers, as well as locksmiths.
Smith said recent attempts to relax licensing laws in those occupations have met with immediate resistance. “Any time we have tried to work on occupational licensing, anything with respect to security professions has been a nonstarter,” he said. “We’re always forced to remove those provisions, or the bill will not go anywhere.”
Beth Avery, an attorney for the California-based National Employment Law Project, said her organization advocates for reversing the burden of proof for occupational regulation. Rather than requiring applicants with troubled pasts to prove they are sufficiently rehabilitated to deserve a license, she said licensing boards ought to be required to approve applicants unless the regulators can demonstrate they present a public safety risk.
Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that in a limited number of instances would prohibit licensing boards from denying a license to an otherwise qualified applicant because of a past criminal offense. House Bill 1426 did not apply to health, financial, law enforcement, or security professions. While it overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed it, explaining, “A license applicant’s criminal background is something the licensing agency should be able to consider.”
Vinger, the DPS spokesman, pointed out the department allows applicants who are summarily denied a license to appeal the decision. Yet as Gatlin’s case shows, that can drag on for months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost business. While Gatlin has been able to keep his All American Locksmith operating with contractors, he has been prohibited from working as a locksmith himself.
Gatlin appealed his denial, and two weeks ago Administrative Law Judge Kerrie Jo Qualtrough recommended the agency reverse course. “There is no evidence of any change in Mr. Gatlin’s character since the Department first issued a license to him in 2004 with the full knowledge of his 1980 conviction,” she wrote. The Private Security Board, which meets quarterly, can choose to accept or reject the judge’s finding.
To Gatlin, the proof of his fitness for his locksmith license is something he has demonstrated every day for half a lifetime. “They have plenty of proof that I’ve been a pillar to the community, conducted a good business,” he said. “And reputation is everything.”