Performing construction work without a license is a dicey proposition. Not only may it jeopardize a party’s lien rights, but contractors may also face administrative penalties from the state licensing board. And, in a handful of states, they may also face criminal charges. One such state is Virginia, where a recent Court of Appeals case held a contractor criminally liable for contracting without a license.

Virginia contractor licensing penalties

In Virginia, a contractor performing work without a license, when required, is unable to file a mechanics lien if they go unpaid. But that’s not the end of it. If a license is required, and the contractor isn’t properly licensed, there can be some serious criminal consequences as well.

Va. Code §54.1-111(B):

“Any person who willfully engages in any unlawful act enumerated in this section is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. The third or subsequent conviction for violating this section during a 36-month period constitutes a Class 6 felony…”

Recently, a Virginia contractor claimed that they weren’t acting as a contractor, but rather was merely arranging for work to be performed. The court disagreed, and the contractor was sentenced to up to 12 months of jail time!

Unlicensed VA contractor faces criminal charges

The case in question is Jeffrey Paul Riddel v. Commonwealth of Virginia.

Project snapshot:

In 2017, the Carpenters were beginning the process of selling their home. Before putting their house on the market, the Carpenters directed their real estate agent Marc Bertinelli to get the septic system inspected and contract any necessary repairs. That’s where Riddel comes in.

Riddel met with Bertinelli twice and represented that he “inspected and repaired septic systems by trade,” which led Carpenters & Bertinelli to believe Riddel was a “septic inspector [and] repair person,” who owned a company dba as Fairfax Suburban Septic.

Ridell inspected the system and recommended $2,500 in repairs under an oral contract. A few days after the system was pumped by Ridell, the septic alarm went off. Ridell had recommended that there was a problem with the “floaters,” and had an associate of his come in to do the repairs.

Once all was said and done, the Carpenters made out a check for $2,620 made payable to Fairfax Suburban Septic. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the septic system wasn’t properly repaired, and the Carpenters demanded a refund — which never came.

So the Carpenters hired an investigator, who uncovered that neither Riddel nor Fairfax Suburban Septic held any licenses for contracting in Virginia.

Contractor claims they weren’t performing work requiring a license

Eventually, the Commonwealth brought charges against Riddel for performing services requiring a Class C license under Va. Code §54.1-1100:

“Class C contractors” perform or manage construction, removal, repair, or improvements when (i) the total value referred to in a single contract or project is $1,000 or more, but less than $10,000, or (ii) the total value of such construction, removal, repair, or improvements undertaken by such person within any 12-month period is less than $150,000…”

Riddel countered by stating he had not violated  §54.1-111 because A. He had merely arranged for licensed contractors to perform the repairs to the septic system, and therefore, B. No written contract to perform septic system inspection or repairs existed.

The trial court wasn’t swayed by this argument, and Riddel was sentenced to 12 months jail time — or 60 days with good behavior. Riddel appealed.

Appeals court affirms criminal charges

On appeal, Riddel reiterated the previous claims that there’s no evidence that he was performing work that required a license; he was merely “making arrangements to have these jobs done.” Their argument was mainly based on the fact that no contract was formed.

However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s conviction. Riddel had provided an estimate and entered into an agreement to provide septic repair services — regardless of whether the agreement was written or oral.

Lastly, Riddel brought a second argument under different Code sections. But those provisions governed unlicensed waterworks or wastewater works operators, and this was an argument not previously presented at the trial court level. Thus, the Appeals court refused to consider the matter on appeal.

Don’t risk it: Get licensed in Virginia

As you can see, the Commonwealth of Virginia takes unlicensed contractor work very seriously. First violations can lead to a Class 2 misdemeanor which requires up to 12 months in jail, a $2,500 fine, or both. Any third or subsequent violations within a 36-month timespan can be penalized as a Class 6 felony, in which case the individual is facing anywhere from 1-5 years of imprisonment, a fine of $2,5000, or both.

Get started: Virginia Contractor Licensing Rules & Requirements

If you’re unsure whether the work you’re performing in Virginia requires a license or not, you should consult an attorney immediately. Otherwise, you may be facing both civil and criminal liability.