Pleading guilty before teenagers

Organizers of Sacramento’s high school DUI court say the goal is to educate, not humiliate

illustration by serene lusano

Gregory Smith sat inside West Campus High School’s gymnasium on March 24 to learn his punishment for driving while intoxicated.

Surrounding the 24-year-old defendant was not a jury of his peers, but a group of about 900 teenagers on folding chairs and gym risers. As the students looked on, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl read the double-charge against Smith: driving under the influence of alcohol, and driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or higher—in Smith’s case, 0.15 percent.

This scene was part of the DUI Court in Schools Program, an initiative started six years ago and funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The idea behind the program, which hosts between 12 and 14 such events around the Sacramento region each year, is to educate students about the consequences—legal and civil—of driving under the influence.

Following the legally binding sentencing hearing, the event opens up to questions and interactive presentations involving those on both sides of the bench, which, in this case, is a folding table draped in a black cloth with the superior court’s emblem.

The idea is to show teenagers a real-life example of what can happen to them if they get behind the wheel while intoxicated, explained Angela Kellogg, who serves on the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy-Sacramento’s Traffic Safety Team, which coordinated Friday’s event.

But the program also boasts the perhaps accidental distinction of turning a DUI defendant’s most embarrassing moment into a set piece viewed by teenagers—conjuring a medieval pillory in the era of Mean Girls.

But public shaming is not the point, Kellogg said.

“This is [on] a completely volunteer basis for the defendant to show up,” Kellogg said. “They come on their own terms. It is presented to them [as an option].”

In this case, Smith agreed to be sentenced in front of high schoolers in return for a little leniency. After Smith entered his guilty plea inside the high school gym, Judge Earl shaved off $50 in fines and dismissed the first charge “in the interest of justice.” Smith’s final sentence?

Five days of community service through the Sheriff’s Work Project and three years on probation; his license suspended for six months; and $1,765.98 in fines.

SN&R asked Stephen Cody, visiting assistant professor of law at McGeorge School of Law, to weigh in on the program. Cody said that, at its essence, holding a hearing at a high school doesn’t add any greater chance of public embarrassment than is already present in a standard court setting.

The problem, Cody explained, is if the defendant was threatened with stiffer penalties if he didn’t take part in the program. The professor acknowledged that the distinction between coercion and a legal incentive isn’t always clear.

“I would certainly have some concern if the ultimate goal was public shaming,” Cody said. “That said, most criminal proceedings are public. In theory, sentences are almost always open to the public if they want to attend.”

For his part, Smith was extremely apologetic to the gym-slash-court. He admitted to being under the influence and belligerent when he was arrested—adding that he had consumed between eight and 12 drinks at various Folsom bars the night of November 5, 2016, when a Highway Patrol officer pulled him over in Rancho Cordova on his way home.

Smith also fielded questions from students, telling them that virtually every aspect of his life had been affected negatively by his DUI arrest.

Along with Judge Earl, Smith and Kellogg, those participating in a question-and-answer session included Deputy District Attorney Kelly Clark and Jill Mason of Mothers Against Drunk Driving—herself a victim of a DUI offender.

Mason, who sits in a wheelchair, explained that a drunk driver paralyzed her from the waist down and killed her boyfriend. A triathlete and runner before the accident, Mason emphasized to the students that Smith’s first-time DUI could have turned out differently.

Kellogg said the stark reality of Mason’s story and the consequences of Smith’s case are what make the program stand out from other driving-safety programs like Every 15 Minutes, which elaborately fictionalizes car wreck and its consequences.

“That’s what this is all about,” Kellogg told SN&R. “Showing them the reality of our choices. We’re all free to make choices in life; we’re just not free to choose the consequences—and the ramifications are more than they know.”

Kellogg believed the program might be effective in preventing other crimes, such as drug and shoplifting offenses, but its goal remains curtailing intoxicated driving by young people. In that sense, it’s difficult to argue that it’s priorities are misplaced.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DUI crashes are the leading cause of death for teens. Nationwide, 2,270 teens aged 16 through 19 were killed in DUI-related incidents in 2014 alone, according to the latest information available on the CDC’s website.

In closing the post-sentencing Q&A session, Judge Earl once again addressed the assembled students.

“We’re not here to embarrass Greg,” Earl told them. “We’re here because we need people to participate [and learn from] this program.”