California County Brings DUI Trials to High Schools

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Mark Flores' drunken driving case started last fall when his Lincoln Continental was spotted weaving on a residential street at 2 a.m. A blood test after his arrest revealed an alcohol level at nearly twice the legal limit.

The case ended Friday with Flores' conviction in the most unusual of courtrooms: a high school auditorium in front of about 100 fidgety teenagers.

Flores, 25, a full-time student in graphic arts, agreed to have his case tried at James Lick High School in San Jose as part of a state-funded program to try to deter seniors from driving drunk. He faced a real judge and prosecutor, and he is scheduled to be sentenced later this month on the two misdemeanor driving under the influence offenses.

Although first offense DUI cases like Flores' usually lead to punishments of six days in a weekend work program and a $1,600 fine, defendants who agree to have their cases heard in high schools are offered more leniency. Lighter sentences range from reduced penalties to waiving the fine outright and giving defendants credit for time served.

Flores felt nervous and embarrassed on stage, but said he connected with the students in a short speech after the hearing. "I'm not going to lie — at first I took it because of the deal," he said. "But I'd do it again. Now, I don't know if I'd do it on my own time, but I'd do it without the deal if the court wanted me to."

Defendants are selected by the county public defender's office and are usually close to high-school age. The cases often have such overwhelming evidence the defendants would have been urged to plead guilty anyway, said J.J. Kapp, Flores' defense lawyer and a supervisor in the public defender's office.

Kapp said the very public punishment is meant to deter high schoolers. Kapp said the office carefully selects defendants who are eager to participate and will be able to give something back to the audience.

Gabriela Dominguez, a 17-year-old senior, said Flores' case served as a good warning. "Just seeing him up there, I thought, 'I don't want to be that person,"' she said. "I wasn't thinking about drinking and driving anyway, but this made me really not want to do it."

Gurjot Pawar, 17, said the appearance conveyed a simple message: "DUI is not cool."

The program, which is run through the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, was the state's first when it launched in 2001. It has since been copied on a smaller scale in San Joaquin County, a few cities in Los Angeles County and elsewhere around the state, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Such programs appear to be rare nationally, though a similar program has been tried in Oklahoma's Tulsa County. That program incorporates videos of crashes and alcohol poisoning deaths after the hearings to illustrate the point.

In one study, ninth graders who participated in that program showed a greater understanding of the severity of DUI crashes and said they wore seat belts more often, but did not change their attitudes about riding in a car with an impaired driver.

"It gives them a vision of what actually happens in a DUI trial — you need an attorney, there are fines, there are consequences," said Margaret Headd, coordinator of the Santa Clara program, which has so far held 19 trials in high schools and one in San Jose State University. "They didn't have that vision before."