American Canyon High School students spent Tuesday morning observing the prosecution of a DUI case on their campus to see firsthand the real world consequences of drinking and driving, and to learn about the judicial system.
The DUI trial, held in the ACHS theater, featured all the elements of an actual criminal case that ordinarily would be tried in a courthouse.
There was a prosecutor, defense attorney and a commissioner from the Napa County Superior Court who served as the presiding judge, as well as Napa County Sheriff’s deputies serving as bailiffs, all on stage.
Details of the criminal charges were read, witnesses were called to testify, and a verdict was announced.
The defendant, an adult male, was also on hand. Although his name was said during the proceedings, his attorney asked that it not be published since his client agreed to participate in a special trial put on for the educational benefit of students.
The outcome was predetermined, according to defense attorney Douglas Skelton, as part of a misdemeanor plea deal reached beforehand that included participation in a trial at the high school.
There was agreement on “an offer that was significantly better if [he] participated in this” trial, Skelton said.
His client pleaded guilty to two charges stemming from an incident in October 2016 when he was pulled over in Yountville by a CHP officer. The charges were driving under the influence, and driving with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or higher.
He will not serve time in jail, but will pay a $1,000 fine, be on probation for three years, and has already attended DUI school, Skelton said.
Students found the experience worthwhile, if not fascinating.
“This was great,” said senior Angelina Ramirez. “I really want to be a lawyer when I’m older. This was such a good experience.”
Ramirez not only got to watch the trial along with more than a hundred students, but also served on a student jury that acted in an advisory capacity.
After Commissioner Monique Langhorne announced that the defendant had been found guilty, she asked the jurors if they would share their opinions with the audience on how they would have voted.
“I would have ruled as guilty because you were driving and the [blood-alcohol] tests were valid,” Ramirez said to the defendant seated across the stage.
Government teacher Scott Marsden, who organized the event, said he wanted to bring the trial to ACHS so local students could attend and learn from it.
Marsden organized a similar DUI trial last year held at Napa’s Historic Courthouse that was attended largely by students from New Tech High School.
“We really wanted to bring this to American Canyon to give our students a chance to attend because only a few were able to attend last year,” said Marsden.
The government teacher had three goals in mind when setting up the trial.
For ACHS seniors about to graduate, Marsden was hoping they would come away from the event and “understand the real world consequences of drinking and driving.”
Skelton agreed that the trial might convince some kids to avoid driving under the influence.
“It gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Oh wow, have a couple of drinks and drive, there’s real consequences,’” he said afterwards.
Secondly, Marsden wanted students “to understand our judicial system” at work. And lastly, he saw it as a chance for students to explore the legal profession as a future career path.
During a Q&A session held at the end, a student in the audience asked the commissioner, prosecutor and defense lawyer about their schooling — and “how much did it cost?” — which provoked laughter throughout the theater.
Each professional said they went through seven years of higher education: four years of undergraduate and three years of law school.
All three said they were still paying off their college debts.
“I have a lot of student loans,” said Deputy District Attorney Kristen Orlando, who graduated from Santa Clare University law school in 2015. “But it is so worth it if this is what you want to do.”