IJ Stands Guard Over the Right to A Fresh Start

Michael Greenberg
Michael Greenberg  ·  February 1, 2022

Jaime Rojas is a dedicated community servant in South Florida. He’s volunteered his time for all kinds of causes, from speaking to teenagers in juvenile detention to preventing animal cruelty. He’s received countless certificates of appreciation for his efforts, including one from a local judge for his work with at-risk youth and one from the Miami Beach City Commission for rescuing drowning swimmers at an unguarded beach.

For years, 41-year-old Jaime dreamed of turning his passion for protecting South Florida’s beachgoers into a career. And in 2019, he achieved that dream when a local municipality hired him as an ocean rescue lifeguard—so long as he could obtain Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification from the Florida Department of Health. An EMT certification is an entry-level credential indicating proficiency in basic, non-invasive life support techniques. EMT certification is required in a wide range of jobs.

But the department rejected Jaime in April 2020. Not because he was unqualified: He’d completed the nearly 200 hours of required coursework and passed the exam on his first try. Instead, using a statute authorizing it to deny EMT certification for any felony conviction, the state denied Jaime because of a single criminal conviction for drug distribution way back in 2004. Rather than making its decision based on who Jaime is today—a model citizen, by all accounts—the department denied him solely because of a youthful mistake of nearly 20 years ago.  

Unwilling to watch his right to earn an honest living—and his dream job—be washed out to sea, Jaime teamed up with IJ. Prepared to appeal a denial to the highest levels of Florida’s courts, Jaime and IJ submitted a new EMT application this past summer.  

That complex, time-consuming effort required compiling nearly 100 pages of documents: court and probation records from decades ago; a state background check; and mounds of evidence of Jaime’s good character, including nine letters of recommendation from co-workers and supervisors. Even then, the state demanded additional forms and records—some so old neither Jaime nor any government agency possessed them anymore. But eventually, rather than face the prospect of protracted litigation against IJ’s army of public interest lawyers, the Department of Health reversed course and granted Jaime his EMT certification. His job was safe.  

Although a big win for Jaime, it shouldn’t have taken a battalion of lawyers for someone with a minor criminal record to exercise his right to earn an honest living. Indeed, Florida earned a woeful D+—in the bottom third of all states—in Barred from Working, IJ’s nationwide survey of legal barriers people with criminal records face in obtaining occupational licenses.

So IJ’s fight in Florida isn’t over. Regular Liberty & Law readers will remember that IJ’s first “fresh start” lawsuit, on behalf of aspiring cosmetologists in Pennsylvania, inspired the state legislature there to repeal “good moral character” requirements across dozens of occupational licenses. Now IJ is publicizing Jaime’s story to advocate for broad legislative change in the Sunshine State, too—to ensure nobody else is denied the fresh start they deserve.

Michael Greenberg is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow.

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