Citizen’s Petition for Background Checks on Solicitors Under Consideration in Bellingham

By Michael Klazema on 8/20/2013

This October, residents of Bellingham, Mass. will vote on a proposal to require all door-to-door solicitors to pass a background check and acquire a permit before selling goods or services in town. The proposed change to the town’s bylaws will not apply to youth groups, politicians, or religious organizations.

The proposal, which was drafted by Bellingham resident Doug Maclachan, also includes a provision limiting door-to-door sales to daytime hours, defined as 9 am to 7 pm, and an option for residents to join a “No Solicitation Registry” that will keep all salesmen off their property at all times. Maclachan said that his proposal is designed to protect residents and help them avoid unwanted knocks on their doors.

Bellingham is by no means the first or the only town to consider such measures. Many communities have recognized the risk that unscrupulous door-to-door solicitors can pose to residents. Because traveling salesmen move around frequently, they sometimes have less of an interest in providing good customer service and upholding their good name. They may sell shoddy products or services or engage in outright fraud.

Running a background check on potential solicitors can help communities protect themselves from known criminals. For example, if a previous conviction for fraud is found during a background check on a traveling salesman, this may indicate that this salesman might be likely to commit a similar crime. Communities could use a product like US OneSEARCH from in order to investigate the backgrounds of solicitors. US OneSEARCH can locate in-state and out-of-state public criminal records because it searches a collection of over 450 million criminal records taken from state and local databases across the country. This means it offers better protection than a state-based background check, which would only uncover convictions in that state’s registry.

In Bellingham’s case, it is not clear what type of background check will be conducted. Solicitors applying for a permit will be required to provide their Social Security number to local police, so the check will presumably be SSN-based. However, with the police in charge the check is likely to be state-based, not national.

Maclachan’s proposal may have some other flaws. First of all, it does not specify which types of criminal convictions should result in a denial of a permit. Additionally, it does not set a time limit for the police to complete the background check and issue a decision on an applicant’s permit status. A similar proposal from the town of Southborough was rejected by Attorney General Martha Coakley for a lack of a time limit in 2009. The provision to exempt certain groups from the background check requirement could also prevent the Attorney General from approving the proposal on the grounds that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Town Counsel Jason Talerman said that because the proposal is a citizen’s petition, the town cannot change the proposal before the vote in order to address these concerns. Instead, they will just have to wait and see how the attorney general reacts if the measure is passed.


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