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Lawmakers kill measure to let people with criminal records be addiction counselors

Person speaks into microphone
Rudolph “Rudy” Carey speaks at a September 2021 press conference. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Some people who’ve battled drug and alcohol addictions eventually turn their energy toward counseling others. But if you live in Virginia - making it a career is illegal if you have a criminal history.

There are almost 200 “barrier” crimes in Virginia law that make you ineligible to become a substance abuse counselor in the state.  They range widely from robbery to recklessly driving to pointing a laser at a law enforcement  officer.

The General Assembly blocked a bill this week that would have changed that.

Rudolph “Rudy” Carey says the rule is unconstitutional. Last fall, he filed a federal lawsuit against the commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Development services, who is responsible for enforcing the law.  

Carey, 51, was arrested in 2004. According to the lawsuit, he was on his way to meet his drug dealer when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. Carey was high at the time and signed his traffic ticket with a fake name. He struck the officer as he tried to run away.

Carey spent about three years in prison for driving on a suspended license, forging a public record, and assault and battery on an official.

“Yes, I did commit crimes, but I also changed my life,” Carey said during a press conference in September. “I have degrees. I have certificates. I have awards. And I’m not that person anymore.”

When he was released from prison, Carey completed rehab, found work and started taking college classes. He says he’s been sober since and hasn’t committed any new crimes.

He eventually landed a job at a treatment facility. 

For the next five years, he says he flourished as a counselor, building relationships with people he’s still in touch with today. But in 2018, a company bought out Carey’s employer and through the process of examining its legal obligations, the company and Carey learned he wasn’t legally allowed to work there.

“A lot of people may not like me, may not understand me, but there are so many people that depend on me,'' he said through tears during the press conference. “And that day, October 2018, was a very painful day for me. It was very painful to walk away from something that I gave my life to.”

The state has tried to dismiss his lawsuit, arguing in court documents that it has the right to bar people with criminal records from working in a direct care position to protect public health and safety.

“A person with a conviction under Virginia Code § 19.2-392.02 has demonstrated a propensity to engage in serious, sometimes violent, criminal behavior. More to the point, plaintiff’s criminal record shows that plaintiff himself had a propensity to engage in violent criminal behavior,”read a motion submitted by the state.

The state told Carey to seek a pardon from the governor. He told VPM Wednesday that he already submitted a pardon request more than two years ago.

“That could take a day, that could take a year, that could take 100 years,” he said. “No one knows.”

This year, Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) carried a bill that would have created a waiver process to allow applicants to bypass the law with the approval of an employer. Several states already have such waiver programs. 

Carey’s attorney, Andrew Ward says the law is counterproductive.

“Some of the people who are best suited to be counselors are people who have been there themselves,” he said.

And he said Carey isn’t the only person being boxed out of the industry.

“The department’s own numbers show that just in the last few years, 1,100 people have been unable to work in substance-abuse counseling or another field the department supervises because of this law. Even though they admit it keeps out qualified applicants with invaluable experience,” Ward said. 

Ward’s organization, Institute for Justice, is challenging laws like this across the country.

Carey’s lawsuit was initially dismissed, but his lawyers have filed an amended complaint. The case is scheduled to be heard in court this May.