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No-contest plea no bar to school employment

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In the world of criminal law, defendants can plead not guilty, guilty or nolo contendere—no contest—to the charges against them. If they plead not guilty, a trial follows. If they plead guilty or nolo contendere, the criminal court system treats both as a conviction, even though a nolo contendere plea means the person neither contests the charges nor admits they are true.

And then there’s the quirky realm of school employment, in which a wrinkle in the legislation governing who may work at schools means a no-contest plea isn’t necessarily a conviction.

Recent case: Edward Cahoon worked as a custodian for a California school district. At some point, he was charged with a minor drug violation. He pleaded no contest to the charge of altering a prescription for a controlled substance.

Cahoon was fired under a provision of state law that said a conviction for a drug-related offense disqualified him from school employment.

He appealed, pointing out he had not technically pleaded guilty. His lawyers said that when it comes to school employment, the Legislature had specified that a “nolo” plea to a sex offense equaled a conviction, but was silent on other offenses.

The Court of Appeal of California agreed with Cahoon and ruled that the plea wasn’t grounds to fire him. (Cahoon v. Governing Board of Ventura Unified School District, No. B207649, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2009)

Final note: This area of the law is undergoing change. Already, many licensing bodies have lobbied the Legislature for clearer rules spelling out that a nolo contendere plea really does equal a conviction. Check with your attorney before taking action based on such a plea. 

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