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Teens learn sobering truth in DUI court

by admin on June 12, 2011

COURTESY OF O.C. REGISTER
By FRED SWEGLES

Three days before San Clemente High School’s junior/senior prom, nearly 1,600 juniors and seniors got a sobering message Wednesday.

Attorney Andrew Sitzer defends his client in front of students and Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger during DUI court at San Clemente High School on Wednesday. Orange County Superior Court was moved to the school’s gym as part of a program called Choices and Consequences that rallies against drinking and driving and distracted driving.

They watched a pair of drunken-driving defendants being sentenced in the school gymnasium and heard heartrending interviews in a video showing how texting and driving can destroy lives, not just of victims but also of the driver at fault.

Students at San Clemente High School

Through a grant-funded program called Choices and Consequences, Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger set up an actual court in the gym, accepted guilty pleas from defendants and gave them suspended sentences, subject to attending alcohol programs and paying fines.

This was the 15th presentation of the program at Orange County high schools this school year, organizers said. The student body and PTA brought it to San Clemente High, and it had the desired effect.

“It’s good to know not to drink and drive and to have everything planned if you do (drink),” said Mikaela Carrillo, an 18-year-old senior. “I will take the keys from (a driver) if they are tipsy and text for them if they need to text someone really badly. I don’t think I’ll be texting and driving.”

In court, a 33-year-old defendant pleaded guilty to driving under the influence after being pulled over at 3:40 a.m. Dec. 10 when an officer noticed his car drifting between lanes.

In the other case, an 18-year-old defendant pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana after being pulled over Jan. 2 just before midnight, driving without headlights.

No one was hurt in either case, but prosecutor Andrew Bugman described other cases that ended in deaths and extended prison sentences. “There’s a very thin line between a first-time DUI and 51 years to life and taking someone else’s life,” he said.

Andrew Sitzer, the defense attorney, said his clients volunteered for the program and received a reduction in fines and fees but still have to go through an alcohol program. Reporters in attendance were asked not to use names, as the defendants were volunteers.

The students heard a motivational speaker, soccer coach Tino Younger, tell how he had stopped drinking and changed his life after six DUIs in his youth, and how he now focuses on changing young lives. “Every choice you make has consequences,” he told the audience.

Three students stepped out of the audience, one taking a texting-and-driving test and two trying to pass a field sobriety test wearing “beer goggles” to simulate impairment. “I thought I was on the line,” student Chris Dunn insisted. He failed the test.

“Your purpose is not to die at this age – it’s just not,” Rachel Clark told the audience.

She and Joe Jardine are licensed therapists who travel with the program. They said students sometimes approach them afterward to keep the conversation going. “They’re having questions or telling stories,” Jardine said. “The seed has been planted.”

Teen Therapist Joe Jardine

Sitzer, the defense attorney, said: “I’ve seen students moved to tears by this program. It’s very impactful. A lot of students have told me they’re glad we did this program, that these are issues they hadn’t thought about in the past.”

Students Chris Haughey, Holden Raulston and Megan Landes

Judge Menninger told the students that impaired driving is the No. 1 cause of teen deaths. “Believe it or not,” she said, “the largest killer of teens isn’t so much of them killing themselves while driving but killing their passenger or someone else they run into while driving.”

Judge Kimberly Menninger