Patterson v. Commonwealth

Two Philadelphia workers sue to overturn a state law that bans anyone with most criminal convictions from working as a security guard for life

The Private Detective Act, a 1953 state law, bars anyone who has ever been convicted of any felony and a long list of misdemeanors from working in security for life, with no exceptions

June 26, 2023 – In Pennsylvania, a 70-year-old law is exacerbating barriers to employment for people with criminal histories. The Private Detective Act imposes a strict lifetime ban on working in the security industry—including as unarmed guards found in many stores and businesses—for anyone with most criminal convictions, well after they have served their sentence.

Today, Mr. Patterson and Mr. Ash, two Philadelphia workers who lost jobs as unarmed security guards due to convictions from more than 15 years ago, sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is responsible for enforcing the Act in Philadelphia. The plaintiffs argue that the Private Detective Act, which governs employment in a wide range of jobs in the security field, is unconstitutional. They are seeking an injunction to block enforcement of the law.

The Act imposes a strict, lifetime ban on employment for applicants who have ever been convicted of any felony and a long list of misdemeanors—no matter how much time has passed and with no provision for employers to consider individual circumstances. This categorical ban, the workers assert, violates their right to pursue an occupation under the Pennsylvania State Constitution.

Read the complaint here. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and the Public Interest Law Center represent the workers.

Mr. Ash had been successfully working as a security guard since 2017. In April 2023, he returned to Philadelphia after living in Florida and was hired as an unarmed security guard by Allied Universal.

One day later, he was fired, after Allied discovered his criminal history during a background check. In 2006, Mr. Ash was convicted of misdemeanors related to an incident of self-defense and sentenced to probation. In the 17 years since, he has never again been charged with a crime. However, as a result of his old criminal record, and despite his long employment history and strong qualifications, he lost the security job and now works as a dishwasher.

“My background and skills are in security, and I was good at my job. I would like to find work in my field, but I am still being punished for a 17-year-old conviction,” said Mr. Ash.

In 2005, when Jamar Patterson was 19 years old, he was convicted of drug possession with intent to sell. Since then, Mr. Patterson, now 37, has maintained a clean record and has a long history of successful employment.

In April 2022, Mr. Patterson received a conditional employment offer to work for Allied Universal as an unarmed security guard at utility company buildings, but Allied rescinded that offer after he disclosed his criminal history. He now works as a field technician for the same utility company but would still like to work in the security industry to earn more income.

“An antiquated and irrational law is shutting qualified workers out of a growing field of employment for the rest of their lives based on unrelated criminal records,” said Senior Attorney Ben Geffen, who, along with Staff Attorney Claudia De Palma, is representing the workers on behalf of the Public Interest Law Center. “We should not impose a life sentence of bias and discrimination in the job market on workers who are seeking to rebuild their lives and contribute to their communities.”

One in three adults in the United States has some kind of criminal history. These records can serve as a steep barrier to employment: about 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. Research makes clear that this bias is unwarranted. The risk of recidivism for individuals with criminal history over seven years old falls below the risk of arrest for the people without criminal records. Employment exclusions fall hardest on Black and Latino workers, who face the greatest impacts of over policing, mass incarceration, and employment discrimination.

Security positions often do not require a college degree and the growing industry can offer better wages and benefits than other entry-level work for high school graduates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for a security guard is $31,470, or about $15 per hour—double Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“Security jobs are highly sought after by low-wage workers, and we have seen hundreds of clients over the years be denied work in this industry due to conviction records that are wholly unrelated to their ability to work in the field,” said Jamie Gullen, Managing Attorney of the Employment Unit at Community Legal Services, who along with Litigation Director Sharon Dietrich and Senior Attorney Katie Svoboda-Kindle, represent the workers on behalf of Community Legal Services.

The Private Detective Act, passed in 1953, includes a long list of misdemeanors that bar workers from employment in the security and protection industry for life. These include simple drug possession, pickpocketing, and a catchall category of “any offense involving moral turpitude.” In reaction to the Act’s broad prohibitions, most security employers do not hire workers with any kind of conviction history at all.

The Act is enforced against employers of security guards, imposing fines of up to $5,000 and/or prison terms of up to a year for any employer that hires workers with criminal histories covered by the Act. The lawsuit seeks an order from the court declaring the Private Detective Act’s criminal record ban unconstitutional and enjoining the Commonwealth and the District Attorney’s Office from upholding and enforcing the Act’s employment restrictions.