State bar leaders on Friday voted to require most active lawyers to get re-fingerprinted, at their own cost, so they can be added to the California Department of Justice’s arrest notification system.
The state Supreme Court still has to approve the plan. But if all goes as scheduled, attorneys will be expected to get their digits scanned by April 30, 2019. Those who miss the deadline could be fined or face a license suspension.
Bar leaders blame past “administrative failures” for the decision to re-fingerprint upwards of 189,000 attorneys. For reasons that are unclear, the state bar did not ensure the original fingerprint scans were kept.
Would-be lawyers must submit fingerprints when they apply to join the bar. State law requires the bar to maintain those prints in a law enforcement database so the disciplinary unit can be notified of members’ arrests. That did not happen.
Acknowledging the problem, bar officials finally contracted with the DOJ last year to scan and keep prints submitted after June 30, 2017. The bar also found and gave to the DOJ about 1,500 “hard copy” fingerprint cards provided by applicants over the last three years. Almost everyone else, though, will have to be scanned again.
Bar leaders say the agency doesn’t have the estimated $15.5 million to pay for the new fingerprints and ensuing background checks, so they’re passing along the costs to members. The average cost will run about $82, depending on how much a local scanning agency charges, according to the bar.
A recent 45-day comment period on the proposal attracted more than 2,600 responses. Not surprisingly, 73 percent of commenters disagreed with the plan. Another 17 percent said they would agree with the proposal if it was modified—to drop the self-payment requirement.
Bar executive director Leah Wilson acknowledged at a board of trustees hearing that the fingerprinting re-do “is not optimal.” She vowed to fix the agency’s “infrastructure” so a similar lapse doesn’t occur again.
“I want to recognize that the bar did not perform in the past as it should have and that’s why we’re here today,” Wilson said.
“You are better off coming to us than waiting for us to come to you, because come to you we will,” Colantuono said in November.
Inactive attorneys and judges will not have to be fingerprinted. Active attorneys living outside the United States will have to be fingerprinted by a licensed agency abroad and submit a hard copy to the bar or notify the bar that such services aren’t available. The bar will pay part of the fingerprinting costs for low-income earners.
The bar is expected to provide more information to attorneys in the coming weeks and announce formal procedures when the Supreme Court approves the fingerprinting proposal.