As with other professions that impact the health and well-being of others, the dental profession is tightly regulated by each state. Anyone who wishes to work as a dentist in any state must first receive the legal authority to do so by acquiring a state dental license. State license requirements differ slightly, but all states make it a crime to practice dentistry without having a license.
Every state has its own laws that define what dentistry is, and while each may differ slightly, they encompass the same kind of activities. Dentistry is defined as evaluating, diagnosing, treating, or preventing any medical condition or disorder related to the mouth, the oral cavity, or medical conditions related to it. Anyone who performs any kind of dental service, ranging from attempting to diagnose dental conditions or using surgical procedures to cure or correct dental problems, must have a state dental license to do so legally.
It’s enough to commit the unlawful practice of dentistry simply by holding yourself out to the public as a dentist or someone who is qualified to perform dental procedures. For example, you can be convicted of the unlawful practice of dentistry if you rent office space and advertise your services as a dentist. It is also legal for you to tell other people you are a dentist and offer them your services or advice, or to otherwise advertise yourself as a dentist, dental surgeon, or other dental professional if you are not one.
Some state laws include dental hygiene with laws prohibiting the unlicensed practice of dentistry, while other states have specific laws that apply to dental hygienists. Regardless of how states categorize the crime, practicing dental hygiene without an appropriate state license is also a criminal act. Dental hygiene is defined as performing such tasks as removing deposits or accretions from teeth, removing oral sutures, providing dental patients with education, applying topical medications, using x-ray films, or performing other tasks in support of dental care provided by a licensed dentist.
While dentists can form partnerships, professional partnerships, limited partnerships or similar business structures with other dentists or medical professionals, in many states they cannot form corporations. This is because the corporate structure would allow non-dentist professionals to have positions of power in the corporation (for example, a businessperson with an MBA could be a corporate director). The concern is that these non-dentists could unduly influence or interfere with the practice of dentistry.
Also, while dentists in many states can form professional corporations, they cannot form corporations in which they share profits with non-dentist owners or stockholders.
A crime can be either a misdemeanor or felony offense depending on the potential penalty associated with it. Each state determines what the penalty for practicing dentistry without a license is, and these penalties differ significantly between states.
Incarceration. In some states, practicing dentistry without a license is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a maximum of a year in jail. In other states the crime is defined as a felony and the maximum potential sentence can range up to five years in a state prison. Some state laws also call for minimum incarceration sentences, such as by requiring a minimum of 30 days in jail but no more than six months in jail
Fines. Practicing dentistry without a license can also result in a significant fine for each offense. Fines differ significantly, but misdemeanor fines of $1,000 and sometimes as much as $3,000 or more are possible. For felony offenses fines can easily exceed $5,000.
Probation. A conviction for practicing dentistry without a license can also result in a probation sentence. Probation can come in addition to or separate from any fines or incarceration, and lasts at least a year or longer. Those on probation have to comply with specific limitations imposed by the court, known as probation conditions. There are numerous kinds of conditions a court can require, but they usually include refraining from committing any more crimes, reporting to a probation officer on a regular basis, contacting that officer if you want to leave the jurisdiction, as well as paying all finds, court costs, and restitution.
Restitution. In cases where someone is convicted of the unlawful practice of dentistry that results in someone else suffering harm, the court will order restitution to compensate the victim. Restitution will differ based on the circumstances of each case, but must be paid in addition to any fine or court costs.
Whether you are a licensed dentist who has let your license lapse, a dental hygienist who failed to renew your license, or anyone who has been charged with the unlawful practice of dentistry, you must consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as you learn of any investigation or charges against you. You have specific legal rights throughout the entire criminal justice process, and if you fail to seek out a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible you can unwittingly cause yourself harm. A local defense lawyer will guide you through the criminal justice process and provide you with advice in light of both state laws, as well as his or her experience with local judges and prosecutors.