It only takes a split-second of bad judgment for a registered nurse to get behind the wheel of a car after consuming some alcohol, but the professional consequences can be severe and last a lifetime. Any nurse with a DUI arrest can attest to the painful, humiliating consequences of being dragged before a judge and accused of the crime. Harsh fines, mandatory classes, and driving restrictions can be handed down in court. But the true professional consequences often spring up months or even a year or more after the arrest and conviction. The California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN) has stiffened penalties and adopted stricter enforcement measures against nurses who are accused of a DUI, sometimes even if the nurse is not even convicted. If you are a nurse in this situation, read on to find out what could happen to you, and how qualified, experienced counsel can help.
BRN usually makes contact with a nurse involved in a DUI either immediately after the arrest or soon after the conviction. The Board may get involved because the California Department of Justice has notified the BRN of an arrest or of a conviction. Nurses have an obligation to report criminal convictions to BRN, so self-reporting can also trigger Board inquiries and action.
In reaction to a report of a DUI arrest or conviction, the Board’s first step is sometimes to offer the nurse entry into its “confidential diversion program,” a third-party program designed to help addicted professionals get clean from drugs or alcohol. Nurses will often get a form letter from the Diversion Program, signed by an analyst or sometimes just from the “Program” generally, indicating that the Board has been made aware that the nurse suffered a criminal incident involving drugs or alcohol. While the decision to enter diversion is a personal one and cannot be made by an attorney or a third party, one can see from the program description on the BRN website that diversion is meant for addicted professionals. It is often a poor fit for nurses who do not struggle with addiction, and the decision to enter diversion should be made after careful consideration. Also, although diversion can avert Board discipline, failure in diversion can lead to discipline after a torturous path of scrutiny at intake, addiction treatment, suspension from work, and harsh oversight.
If a nurse declines diversion, the Board usually reappears a few months later—sometimes before the conviction, sometimes after—with a letter requesting the nurse to provide a litany of documents, including certified court records and police records, along with an explanation of what happened. The timing of this letter is critical. If a nurse has not yet been convicted or plead to any crime, then he or she must carefully consider how to balance their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent against the Board’s request. This is where the involvement of a licensing attorney, sometimes with input from criminal defense counsel, can make an important difference.
Assuming a conviction results from the arrest, the conviction must now be reported to the Board of Registered Nursing and explained in detail. Strong evidence of rehabilitation should be gathered and presented to the Board at this stage, and an experienced licensing attorney will know the Board’s reporting requirements and the most helpful evidence to include with a nurse’s letter of explanation.
Whether the Board ultimately files an Accusation—a formal disciplinary charge against the nurse—depends on a few factors. Recently, the Board has been filing Accusations on single DUI convictions at all blood alcohol content levels, after evaluation of the circumstances of the intoxication and arrest and other factors. For multiple alcohol-related convictions, the Board will almost always file a case even if many years pass between incidents. If you are a nurse who receives an Accusation, it is vital that you get representation immediately. Your license is at stake, and your future employment could depend on the type of conditions attached to your license as a result of Board discipline.