For some occupations it's necessary for people to first obtain licensure before they can engage in the practice of that profession. Licenses are required for a wide range of jobs, including physicians, attorneys, nurses, pharmacists, engineers, veterinarians, social workers, real estate agents, accountants, and others. Anyone who engages in of these professions without having the proper license often commits a crime, known as practicing without a license or by similar terms. Individual states each adopt their own licensing requirements and penalties, but all states have laws which punish practicing without a license.
When a state requires a license to practice an occupation, the term "practicing" means performing services for someone else. Licensing of certain professions serves to protect the public by ensuring that those engaged in these occupations are capable of providing the intended service. For example, physicians treat people for illnesses and injuries, and if they do not have the proper training, education, and expertise they could cause their patients harm. When you practice a profession you hold yourself out as having this expertise.
While state laws require people to have a professional license if they intend to provide services to others, practicing without a license does not include services you provide to yourself. For example, you do not need to be a licensed barber to give yourself a haircut, nor do you need to be a licensed attorney to file your own lawsuits or represent yourself in court. Licensing requirements apply when you provide services to others. If your state requires you to have a license before you provide such services to others, this is where practicing without a license applies.
States have differing definitions of what it means to practice medicine. Regardless, all states require medical professionals to obtain some kind of license before they can engage in their occupation. This includes doctors, dentists, nurses, veterinarians, and other healthcare workers. States typically define practicing medicine as any activity that is intended to cure disease or preserve health. However, this broad definition does not include activities such as selling vitamins, providing books on nutrition or healing, providing general advice, selling home remedies, or related activities. However, if someone diagnoses people, prescribes medication, or performs physical examinations, this is all activity covered by the unauthorized practice of medicine. Engaging in the practice of medicine without a license is often a felony offense.
Attorneys must also be licensed before they can provide legal services to other people. States have different definitions of what it means to practice law, though they typically include the same type of activity. Practicing law means providing legal advice, representing someone in court, preparing legal pleadings or legal documents, offering opinions about the validity of real estate titles or titles to personal property, or similar matters connected to the law. Anyone who engages in the unauthorized practice of law can face both civil and criminal penalties.
While law and medicine are the two professions commonly associated with practicing without a license, states have a variety of laws that impose criminal sanctions on other professions as well. For example, in North Carolina you must have a license in nutritional care services to provide advice about diet and nutrition. (North Carolina General Statutes section 90-365.) Also, in many states, such as Florida, it is a crime to give people tattoos without a license. (Florida Statutes section 877.04.) These laws impose a range of penalties, and differ widely by state.
States may also require licenses for a variety of jobs or endeavors, though failing to have the proper license may not always be a crime. For example, if you want to start your own home-based business you typically have to obtain a license from your city, county, or state government agency. These licenses can be obtained by anyone who files the appropriate application and includes any applicable fee. However, if you start your home-based business without having the appropriate license, this isn't typically a crime. You may face a civil penalty, such as a fine, but you usually do not face jail time if you don't have the proper permit.
State laws on practicing without a license differ widely. Not only do some states require licenses in some professions while other states do not, but the severity of the criminal penalties for practicing without a license differs as well. Anyone convicted of practicing without a license faces a range of penalties.
The crime of practicing without a license can be a very serious charge depending on the circumstances. Because state laws are so different in both their licensing requirements and the potential punishments involved, it's vital that you speak to a local criminal defense attorney if you're investigated or charged with one of these crimes. Local attorneys who have experience with local courts and prosecutors will not only be able to give you advice based on the laws of your state, but also on their experience with the local criminal justice system. You should never attempt to speak to law enforcement agents or make any decisions about your case before you have consulted with an experienced attorney in your area.