In 2014, Christopher Owen was in the middle of a Nashville ballad’s worth of bad luck.
According to court records, the Tarrant County man “had gone from owning his own oil and gas company to becoming homeless. His home was destroyed by fire, he learned that his wife was having an affair and they divorced, and his mother died.”
On Nov. 23, 2014, cold and wet, Owen was rummaging through a Goodwill donation drop-off trailer when his lousy streak continued, records show. He was spotted and arrested for burglary of a vehicle for taking a pair of socks. The value of his theft — his only criminal record — was less than $5.
Owen’s short stay in jail appeared to be a pivotal point. He turned his life around, records show, finding work with a security company whose owner described him as “honest, productive and valuable to the company.”
Yet late last year when he applied for a state license to sell alarm systems for the security company, the Texas Department of Public Safety rejected his application, citing the hosiery heist.
While a stark example of how state regulators can zealously apply a law in apparent defiance of common sense, it isn’t the only such case, according to records from the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which adjudicates licensing disputes.
Citing applicants’ criminal pasts, in recent weeks the public safety agency also has denied occupational licenses to a Travis County woman who five years earlier had been charged with trespassing after sleeping in an abandoned house when she was homeless. It also denied a license to a Hidalgo County man whose sentencing judge took the extraordinary step of formally declaring the man to be “completely rehabilitated and … ready to re-take his place as a law-abiding member of society” nearly nine years after his only crime, for theft.
Texas licenses hundreds of professions, from auctioneers to weather modifiers. Because public safety is a primary reason for regulating a profession, the various state agencies charged with overseeing the occupational licenses all identify specific crimes that disqualify applicants from those professions.
At the same time, most criminal justice experts agree that having a good job is crucial to reintegrating offenders back into society. So regulating agencies may apply discretion to many lesser criminal histories to account for an ex-offender’s rehabilitation. Mitigating factors often include how long it has been since the offense was committed, extenuating circumstances and the applicant’s efforts to improve his or her life.
When it comes to applying that flexibility, however, the Department of Public Safety “has traditionally been one of the agencies least likely to exercise its discretion,” said Jason Ray, who worked as an attorney for the agency before entering private practice specializing in administrative law.
The agency says it must be cautious because the professions it is charged with overseeing — which include security guards, locksmiths and alarm companies — put licensees into contact with customers at their most vulnerable and so are particularly sensitive. A DPS spokesman said appropriate rules for due process were followed in all of the recent cases.
Owen applied for his alarm salesperson license late last year in an effort to raise his pay. But records show the DPS, citing his sock swipe, summarily rejected his application. Occupational laws permit applicants to appeal. But in January the public safety agency denied Owen again.
The DPS was equally unsympathetic to Krystal Turner, who in late 2011 was homeless when she ducked into an abandoned house near the University of Texas. The next morning she was arrested for criminal trespass. She was sentenced to 15 days in Travis County Jail.
Still homeless after her release, Turner said she camped along the Colorado River. She later began house-sitting and, in 2013, finally found permanent housing through her church.
She soon found a job at a local lube garage. “When my sister played with Barbie, I always played with her car,” she said. “I was seriously born to work on cars.”
In November 2015, Turner was promoted to store manager at another shop, supervising four employees and managing the outlet’s cash and credit transactions. She started attending Austin Community College classes. Court records show she is “a straight-A student, is in the ACC honors program, and has been nominated for a national scholars program.”
Turner said she has a year and a half until she earns her Master Automotive Service Excellence certification. She serves on a campus ministry.
“Her honesty and work ethics are impeccable,” her boss said.
Yet when Turner applied for her state vehicle inspector’s certificate because the garage was having trouble hiring enough inspectors to keep up with demand, the DPS denied her, citing the trespassing conviction.
Both Owen and Turner appealed their rejections to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, the next step in the appeal process. In June, separate administrative law judges recommended that the DPS give each their respective licenses.
“Ms. Turner is no longer the same person who committed the criminal trespass offense,” Judge Howard Seitzman wrote.
Such rulings are treated as recommendations. The DPS can decide as soon as this week whether it will accept the judges’ decisions.
Eyes on Government
This story continues ongoing scrutiny of state regulatory agencies by Eric Dexheimer, a Statesman investigative reporter since 2006. His previous work has exposed how regulators have attempted to discipline licensed workers for their off-duty behavior, and he’s written in-depth articles on state oversight of the lottery, bingo and economic development trust funds.