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Ask for Traffic School!

By Donna Mallard | Apr. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2015

Ask for Traffic School!

Many drivers wrongly assume that if they request a trial to contest a violation they forfeit the option to attend traffic school.

Ever get a traffic ticket and face a stern judge who offers to let you attend traffic violator school to avoid adding points to your driving record? If you have had the pleasure of this experience, then you may have perceived the veiled threat that if you ask for a trial and lose, you will no longer have the opportunity to erase the ticket from your driving record by attending traffic school.

That's an intimidating dilemma-and a misleading one, as governing statutes, rules of court, and case law confirm.

Statutory Background

A specific California statute outlines the court's discretion in this area. A judge may order or permit a person who pleads guilty or no contest to, or is convicted of, a traffic violation to attend traffic violator school. (See Cal. Veh. Code § 42005.) But what factors control the court's discretion?

The rules of court specifically provide that although a judicial officer "may in his or her discretion order attendance at a traffic violator school," a defendant who otherwise qualifies for such an order "is not made ineligible by entering a plea other than guilty or by exercising his or her right to trial." (Cal. Rule of Court 4.104(c)(1) and (2).)

The intent behind this rule is clear: The court should not deny a traffic-school deal based on the defendant's request for trial. (See Advisory Committee Comments to Rule 4.104.)

Common Sense and Case Law

Basic logic applies: If the court deems a defendant eligible for traffic school before a trial request is even made, why should that eligibility determination change if the person is found guilty after a trial? After all, the premise for allowing attendance is an admission that the infraction occurred.

Appellate decisions support this reasoning. In one case, the court of appeal held that it was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion to deny a request for traffic school from a defendant who had explained his conduct in a trial prior to making the request. The court stated that a "trial judge has the power to order a defendant to attend traffic school. If the trial judge believes that a defendant's circumstances indicate that a defendant would benefit from attending school, such attendance should be authorized." (See People v. Enochs, 63 Cal. App. Supp. 42 (1976).)

A subsequent decision concluded that a court policy denying permission to attend traffic school after conviction was an abuse of discretion. (People v. Wozniak, 197 Cal. App. 3d Supp. 43 (1987) (trial court must consider the merits of a defendant's request for traffic school "whether that request is made before or after conviction").)

The significance of these rulings is that while courts have wide discretion in granting the traffic school option, they cannot foreclose it simply because a person asks for a trial. Even so, in many courtrooms around the state the option of traffic school is put on the table on a one-time, take-it-or-leave-it basis; harried judges may be quick to say (wrongly) that if a defendant exercises his or her right to a trial, the traffic school option will vanish.

But that is not the law. And while cited drivers should know the laws of the road, they should also know the laws that apply in a courtroom. For if there is a trial and the driver is found to have committed a moving violation, the adjudicated violator need have no hesitation about politely asking for the chance to attend traffic school. It is an abuse of judicial discretion to deny that option just because the person who asked contested the allegations.

One possible safeguard would be for defendants to ask traffic court judges to state on the record the specific reasons for exercising their discretion to deny a particular traffic school request. However, the law does not mandate that practice. (See People v. Schindler, 20 Cal. App. 4th 431, 433 (1993).)

A driver who feels that a citation is not justified has every right to ask for a trial to contest the charge. If convicted, traffic school is still an option. But you have to ask for the opportunity.

Traffic School Eligibility

Traffic school is an important option since it enables a driver to erase violation "points" to preserve a good driving record for insurance purposes. To be eligible to earn forgiveness this way, your drivers' license must be valid and the vehicle noncommercial; the offense can't be alcohol-related or a misdemeanor; and it must be more than 18 months since any previous traffic-school deal. Of course, any driver can enroll in a defensive driving course voluntarily, for insurance discounts or just self-improvement.

Art Gharibian handles personal injury and elder abuse cases at Gharibian Law in Encino.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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