Image of a helicoper and a coast guard cutter/ship. The caption reads "Can You Join The Coast Guard With A Felony, answered."

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is completely unique among America’s military branches. Created by Congress in 1790 at the request of Alexander Hamilton as the Revenue-Marine, the Coast Guard could be considered the oldest maritime service of the U.S., even older than the U.S. Navy.

Can You Join the Coast Guard with a Felony

The modern Coast Guard was officially formed in 1915 and is one of the smallest military branches; there are nearly more New York City police officers than there are Coast Guard members!

Unlike the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, which fall under the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security (except during a time of war).

A Unique Mission

It is important to understand the mission of the Coast Guard when considering applying with a felony record or criminal background. For instance, one of the Coast Guard’s key missions is maritime law enforcement. Municipal police officers typically do not consider individuals with a felony when seeking new recruits.

In addition, the Coast Guard is one of the hardest military branches to get into, with or without a felony. Why? The USCG is extremely selective when accepting applicants and requires a very high score (relative to the other branches) on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).

Having said that, when dealing with any branch of the U.S military, there can be a waiver for anything. This is especially true if the military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals.

So, can you join the Coast Guard with a felony? The answer might surprise you.

A Booming Economy Means Fewer People Joining the Coast Guard

When the economy lags or goes into recession, many people turn to the military for financial stability.

However, when the U.S. job market is strong, college enrollments plummet and the U.S. military has trouble bringing in willing recruits. This is largely a result of high school graduates having their pick of several high paying civilian jobs immediately after graduation.

When the Coast Guard has trouble finding new recruits (like in a time of war), all the rules get thrown out the window.

Still, the USCG and other military branches put a strong emphasis on “Sound Moral Character.” But what does that mean?

What is “Sound Moral Character?”

Strictly defined, moral character is the existence of virtues such as integrity, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty. In other words, it means that you’re a good person and a good citizen with a good head for what is right and wrong. Sound moral character also means that you have a respect for authority including state and federal law.

Armed conflict has its own set of laws called the Geneva Convention for Rules of Engagement that dictates the humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel, medical personnel and non-military civilians during a war or armed conflicts.

By and large, the Coast Guard wants individuals who won’t discredit the United States during times of armed conflict. But it’s more than that; the Coast Guard would prefer not to spend the time and money needed to deal with a “problem Guardsman.” There are studies that show a correlation between pre-service criminal history and in-service misconduct.

Therefore, in many cases, a felony conviction could prevent a person from joining the military.

So, is all hope lost? Not yet.

Enlistment Requirements Are Not Set in Stone

Recruitment standards are one of the few Pentagon regulations that are not set in stone. If needed in times of a shortage of Guardsmen, the Coast Guard lowers the fitness requirements to make more individuals eligible for enlistment. In addition, the Coast Guard is occasionally willing to consider Americans who have a criminal history, depending on the severity of the crime.

Called a “moral waiver” or “conduct waiver,” individuals with a criminal background can apply to be evaluated, depending on the type of felony conviction. A Coast Guard recruiter is typically the person who would walk an individual through the waiver process and acceptance depends on several factors:

  • What was your felony conviction was for? There is a big difference between armed robbery and drug possession.
  • Are you currently facing criminal proceedings?
  • Was your conviction as a minor or as an adult?
  • Are you currently on probation?
  • Was your crime a one-time offense, or are you a repeat offender?

How Do I Know if I Need a Waiver to Join the Coast Guard?

Chapter 4 of the Coast Guard recruiting manual (COMDTINST M1100.2F) is the policy that the USCG has developed to instruct recruiters on how to deal with recruits who may have a criminal history. In this policy, the USCG explicitly states who would require a moral waiver.

Individuals are ineligible for enlistment or commissioning in the USCG (requiring a waiver) when any of the following circumstances exist:

  • ANY pending criminal, civil, or other court action, including bankruptcy, divorce, traffic violations, or child custody proceedings.
  • Convicted of a felony or serious crime, including domestic violence.
  • Currently awaiting trial or sentence by a civil court.
  • Registered sex offender or convicted in state or federal court for the following crimes: rape or sexual assault, forcible sodomy, incest, or attempts to commit any of these acts.
  • Have been confined in a federal or state prison or pardoned for otherwise disqualifying offenses.
  • History of juvenile delinquency, including adjudication as a youthful offender or wayward minor.
  • Repeated drug, including marijuana, or chemical substance abuse/use, where the use of and reliance on these substances are part of the person’s behavior pattern. Participated in a drug rehabilitation program. NOTE: This does not include drug experimentation, which is defined as “a few times for reasons of curiosity, peer pressure, or similar reasons.”

According to the USCG, it is a priority of the recruiting mission to identify prospective recruits that possess the proper “character” to be an asset to the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Reserve. Character is particularly critical in commissioning programs due to the requirement that all officers must be eligible to hold a SECRET security clearance.

What Are the Specific Offenses That May Make Me Ineligible?

The USCG breaks down offenses into four lists:

List 1 – Felony Offenses

List 2 – Major Misdemeanors

List 3 – Minor Non-Traffic Offenses

List 4 – Minor Traffic Offenses

If you were convicted of ANY offense in List 1 or 2, you may NOT apply to the Coast Guard, even with a waiver. However, if you were charged but not convicted, you may still apply for a waiver.

List 1 – Felony Offenses

  • Aggravated assault; Assault with a deadly weapon; Assault intentionally inflicting great bodily harm
  • Arson
  • Assault with intent to commit a felony
  • Attempt to commit a felony
  • Breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony
  • Bribery
  • Burglary
  • Carnal knowledge of a child under the age of 16
  • Conspiring to commit a felony
  • Criminal libel
  • Extortion
  • Forgery; Knowingly uttering/passing a forged instrument
  • Graft
  • Grand larceny; Embezzlement (value over $100)
  • Housebreaking
  • Indecent acts or liberties with a child under the age of 16
  • Indecent assault
  • Kidnapping or abduction
  • Mail matter: Abstracting, destroying, obstructing, opening, secreting, stealing, taking mail; Depositing obscene or indecent matter
  • Maiming; Disfiguring
  • Manslaughter
  • Misprision of a felony
  • Murder
  • Pandering
  • Perjury; Subornation of perjury
  • Public records: Altering, concealing, destroying, mutilating, obliterating, removing
  • Rape
  • Riot
  • Robbery
  • Sedition; Solicitation to commit sedition
  • Sodomy
  • Wrongful possession, use, or sale of narcotics or habit-forming drugs

List 2 – Major Misdemeanors

  • Assault consummated by battery
  • Bigamy
  • Breaking and entering a vehicle
  • Check, worthless, making or uttering, with intent to defraud or deceive (value $100 or less)
  • Contributing to the delinquency of a minor
  • Desecration of a grave
  • Driving while drugged or intoxicated
  • Failure to stop and render aid after an accident
  • Indecent exposure
  • Indecent, insulting, or obscene language communicated to another directly by telephone
  • Leaving a dead animal
  • Looting
  • Negligent homicide
  • Petty larceny (value of stolen property $100 or less)
  • Reckless driving
  • Resisting arrest
  • Selling or leasing weapons to minors
  • Slander
  • Stolen property, knowingly receiving (value $100 or less)
  • Suffrage rights, interference with
  • Unlawful carrying of firearms; Carrying concealed firearms
  • Use of telephone to abuse, annoy, harass, threaten, or torment another
  • Willfully discharging a firearm so as to endanger life; Shooting in a public place
  • Wrongful appropriation of a motor vehicle; Joyriding; Driving a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent.

If you were convicted of ANY offense in List 3 or 4, you may apply to the Coast Guard but will require a waiver. However, if you were charged but not convicted, you may apply normally, i.e. without a waiver.

List 3 – Minor Non-Traffic Offenses

  • Abusive language under circumstances to provoke a breach of peace
  • Carrying a concealed weapon (other than a firearm); Possession of brass knuckles
  • Curfew violation
  • Damaging road signs
  • Discharging a firearm through carelessness; Discharging a firearm within municipal limits
  • Disobeying a summons
  • Disorderly conduct; Creating a disturbance; Boisterous conduct
  • Disturbing the peace
  • Drinking liquor on a train (other than in a club car)
  • Drunk in public; Drunk and disorderly
  • Dumping refuse near a highway
  • Fighting; Participating in affray
  • Fornication
  • Illegal betting or gambling; Operating an illegal handbook, raffle, lottery, punchboard, matching, or cockfight
  • Juvenile non-criminal misconduct: Beyond parental control, incorrigible, runaway, truant, wayward
  • Killing a domestic animal
  • Liquor: Unlawful manufacture, sale, possession, consumption in public place
  • Loitering
  • Malicious mischief: Painting a water tower; Throwing water-filled balloons, rocks on highway, missiles at athletic contests, or objects at vehicles
  • Nuisance, committing
  • Poaching
  • Possession of cigarettes by a minor
  • Possession of indecent publications or pictures
  • Purchase, possession, or consumption of alcoholic beverages by a minor
  • Removing property from public grounds
  • Removing property under lien
  • Robbing the orchard
  • Shooting from a highway; Shooting on a public road
  • Simple assault
  • Throwing glass or other material in the road
  • Trespass to property
  • Unlawful assembly
  • Using or wearing an unlawful emblem
  • Vagrancy
  • Vandalism: Injuring or defacing public property or the property of another; Shooting out streetlights
  • Violation of fireworks laws
  • Violation of fish and game laws

List 4 – Minor Traffic Offenses

  • Blocking or retarding traffic
  • Careless driving
  • Crossing yellow line; Driving left of center
  • Disobeying traffic lights, signs, or signals
  • Driving on shoulder
  • Driving uninsured vehicle
  • Driving with blocked vision
  • Driving with expired plates or without plates; License plates improperly displayed or not displayed
  • Driving without a license or with a suspended or revoked license
  • Driving without registration or with improper registration
  • Driving the wrong way on a one-way street
  • Failure to comply with the officer’s directives
  • Failure to have vehicle under control
  • Failure to keep to the right or in line
  • Failure to signal
  • Failure to stop or yield for a pedestrian
  • Failure to submit a report following an accident
  • Failure to yield the right of way
  • Faulty equipment: Defective exhaust, horn, lights, mirror, muffler, signal device, steering device, tailpipe, or windshield wipers
  • Following too closely
  • Improper backing: Backing into an intersection or highway, backing on an expressway, backing over a crosswalk
  • Improper blowing of horn
  • Improper parking: Restricted area, fire hydrant, double parking
  • Improper passing: Passing on the right, in a no-passing zone, a parked school bus, or a pedestrian in a crosswalk
  • Improper turn
  • Invalid or unofficial inspection sticker; Failure to display inspection sticker
  • Leaving key in ignition
  • Operating an overloaded vehicle
  • Racing; Dragging; Contest for speed
  • Reckless driving (single offense)
  • Speeding
  • Spinning wheels; Improper start; Zigzagging or weaving in traffic

It is important to remember that the most dynamic variable is always the “needs of the Coast Guard.” In times of lower enlistment or national crisis, the USCG has and will continue to allow people into the military who may not have been qualified otherwise.

In this sense, timing is everything. But it is important to note that of all the military branches, the Coast Guard is one of the pickiest when selecting new recruits.

How do you Apply for a Moral Waiver?

The process starts by speaking to a Coast Guard recruiter. The recruiter will ask the applicant if they have ever been arrested, what crimes they may have committed, including traffic violations, and ask about any juvenile crimes; even those that may have been sealed.

Once the applicant admits to having a felony conviction or criminal history, the recruiter will request a complete background check from local law enforcement agencies.

It is worth noting that the individual Coast Guard recruiters have no authority to waive a criminal offense.

The good news is that the Coast Guard considers the “whole person” concept when approving waivers. Applicants who score well on their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, Armed Forces Qualification Test (ASVAB AFQT) have a higher chance of receiving a waiver.

In addition, applicants with outstanding high school grades or college credits will also benefit the waiver approval process.

The final piece to keep in mind is that there is no strict set of guidelines for this entire process. In a time of national crisis or war, the whole waiver process could be temporarily suspended. If an extremely big war broke out, the draft could even make a comeback.

Can I Appeal a Rejected Waiver?

If you need a waiver for criminal history, then you are already at a point where you do not meet the standards for enlistment. In this sense, the waiver itself is the appeals process.

Remember that joining the military is not a right, it is a privilege. In this sense, the military routinely turns away people who do not meet their standards.

Unfortunately, there is no process to appeal a waiver that has been denied by the Coast Guard.

It is important to note that each waiver process is for one branch only. This means that a waiver that was denied by the Coast Guard does not disqualify you from other branches of service like the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.

If a waiver was denied by Coast Guard, speak to a recruiter from another branch and go through the process again.

If that fails, it is possible that the timing is just not right. Wait a year and try again.

Yes, You Can Join the Coast Guard With a Felony (Charged but Not Convicted)

The military can be a phenomenal place for a fresh start. The esprit de corps and camaraderie can forge friendships that last a lifetime.

The structure and discipline found in the Coast Guard is also a great path to mental toughness and why many veterans are so successful in business and entrepreneurship when they leave the military.

The first step is to speak with a Coast Guard recruiter in your hometown and discuss your criminal history in detail. The “whole person” concept means that you will be evaluated not just on the bad things you may have done, but the good things as well.

Armed with the knowledge of the process, good timing and a little luck, the Coast Guard can be an excellent option for applicants with a criminal history.