Following the lead of Norton, Westwood, and about a dozen other Massachusetts communities, Hanover has passed new regulations requiring that certain vendors be fingerprinted and undergo a federal criminal history check.
The regulations are intended to grant licensing boards access to out-of-state criminal records and to prevent license applicants from stealing another person’s “clean” identity and using it to pass a background check, officials say.
In Hanover, ice cream truck vendors, hawkers, solicitors, pawnbrokers, taxi drivers, and anyone who sells liquor could pay a $100 fee to get fingerprinted, $30 of which will go to the state’s Firearms Fingerprint Identity Verification Trust Fund. Licensees renew their licenses and would have to pay this fee on an annual basis.
Municipalities in Massachusetts have only recently been able to look into federal record systems. A 2010 state law that went into effect last May granted municipalities the right to pass ordinances allowing for comprehensive background checks for licensure.
Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said Hanover is not yet in the state database of municipalities with approval for civil fingerprinting, because the town still must meet a number of requirements, including approval of the bylaw from the state attorney general’s office and the FBI. He said 15 towns in Massachusetts have passed such bylaws and received federal approval. They are Brookline, Charlton, Dudley, Hopkinton, Lincoln, North Andover, North Reading, Norton, Reading, Seekonk, Swampscott, Tewksbury, Wakefield, Wellesley, and Westwood.
Norton Town Manager Michael Yunits said police there took advantage of the state law in 2011 because of the town’s proximity to the state border.
“We’re close to Rhode Island, and when you do a CORI [state criminal background check] on someone, it’s strictly Massachusetts. We couldn’t access any records from outside the state,” he said.
Westwood passed a bylaw last May, and, according to Chief Jeffrey Silva, none of the applicants the town has processed have yielded a hit in a criminal background search. He said the new law has probably discouraged people with records from applying.
He said there has been a learning curve with implementation, especially since the FBI can take several weeks to process requests.
“The biggest issue quite frankly is that people don’t realize how long it’s going to take. They’ll come into the office on a Monday and expect to get a license Wednesday,” Silva said. “Fingerprint-based checks take some time because you’re at the mercy of state and federal databases, which are processing a lot of requests.”
The new Hanover bylaw, co-sponsored by Police Chief Walter Sweeney and the Board of Selectmen and approved by the Oct. 10 Special Town Meeting, will grant licensing officials access to federal criminal history databases, allowing them to learn about charges and convictions outside of Massachusetts.
“I look at it as an extremely important public safety and public policy issue that we use every tool available to vet these applicants and keep the community safe,” Sweeney said in a phone interview.
Joseph Salvucci, president of the Hanover Board of Selectmen, said he was proud that Hanover would be the 16th out of hundreds of municipalities in the state to take advantage of the new state law.
“Our chief is one of the first ones in the area to start the process,” Salvucci said. “I think that during the spring town meetings, we might see more of these passing.”
The Hanover bylaw will have different applications.
The police chief, who determines whether ice cream trucks and their employees get licensure, will always use the fingerprinting system. The Board of Selectmen, which decides on taxi and liquor licenses, will have the tools available, according to Sweeney, but won’t be mandated to use fingerprinting background checks.
Chris Ott, spokesman for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the law raises many concerns about privacy, surveillance, and false positives.
“One troubling thing about this proposal is that it widens the government net of surveillance and record keeping,” he said.
He also worried about irrelevant charges keeping people from finding honest work.
“We think these kinds of measures are going to add to the data that clog government information systems, and make it hard to find the really dangerous people,” he said. “They’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and they’re just adding more and more hay.”
Sweeney said background checks yield all applicable data, and he will be able to tell whether an applicant was arrested but not charged, or was found not guilty of a crime. While state law prohibits convicted sex offenders from operating an ice cream truck, Sweeney said that officials could use discretion to decide whether a conviction is relevant to an applicant’s job duties.
“As with any licensing, the person issuing will have a complete picture and would use good judgment as to whether that activity would make an applicant an improper person to hold that license,” he said.Cara Bayles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.