The Grade Blog

Thursday, Mar 21 2013 05:36 PM

Students get live court lesson on the perils of drunk driving

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Judge Brian McNamara presides over a temporary courtroom at the Rabobank Convention Center for the sentencing in a DUI case that was also a workshop for the Leaders in Life youth conference.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Alicia Rangel, left, with her attorney, public defender Sarah Schumacher, listen to her sentence for a DUI.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    With students hanging on every word, defendant Alicia Rangel, left, with her attorney, public defender Sarah Schumacher, listen to Rangel's sentence for a DUI conviction. Rangel's case was held in temporary courtroom at the Rabobank Convention Center and was part of the Leaders in Life youth conference.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Teens witness a real DUI sentencing in a temporary courtroom set up at the Rabobank Convention Center where they attended the Leaders in Life youth conference.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael Yraceburn answers questions after the sentencing in a DUI case in a temporary courtroom at the Rabobank Convention Center, part of the Leaders in Life youth conference. At left is Carla Pearson of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Judge Brian McNamara presided over a temporary courtroom at the Rabobank Convention Center for the sentencing of Alicia Rangel in a DUI case. The sentencing was attended by students in the Leaders in Life youth conference.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Fifteen-year-old Luis Ozuna of North High was one of the students attending the Leaders in Life youth conference who witnessed a sentencing in a DUI case.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

In many ways, Thursday's sentencing of two defendants who had previously pled no contest to driving under the influence wasn't out of the ordinary.

There was a Kern County Superior Court judge, a deputy district attorney, a public defender and a bailiff. The state seal was affixed to a rear wall of the courtroom. Two guards watched over the defendants.

But the sentencing didn't take place at the courthouse. It was a block east at the Rabobank Convention Center before an audience of teenagers attending Thursday's Leaders in Life youth conference.

Two defendants were sentenced in separate sessions attended by about 200 children each. Alicia Rangel and Juan Lugo agreed to put their sentencing on display as a cautionary tale. Neither got any special leniency in exchange for their participation, the court said.

For her second DUI in three years, Rangel was sentenced by Judge Brian McNamara to 30 days in jail but allowed her to serve most of that in a work-release program. The judge also ordered her to take a driver safety class and stay out of bars while she is on probation.

Because he is only 20 and not legally allowed to drink, Lugo got 90 days in jail.

Both defendants also were fined and had their driver's license suspended.

After the hearings, the officials explained what had just happened and took questions from the audience.

CHP Officer Bill Menter told them it was nice to see them in the audience and not "out there."

"It's hard enough to get a license in the first place," he said. "You don't want to lose it."

Menter added that anyone suspected of impaired driving must submit to a blood test in Kern County. If you refuse, "we get to hold you down like an animal and take your blood," he said. "One way or another, we're going to get our sample."

Public Defender Sarah Schumacher pointed out that there is no defense for driving with any form of impairment, whether it's from an over-the-counter drug, a prescription drug, medically approved marijuana, street drugs or alcohol.

"You might drive because you don't want to leave your car somewhere and get a parking ticket for, what, $60? Or you don't want to pay $30 to take a cab home," she said. "But compare that to the thousands of dollars you spend on a DUI. Just one can easily add up to $4,000, $5,000 by the time you add up all the fines, classes, insurance and court costs."

That includes installation and monthly rental costs for an ignition interlock device that prevents a car from starting if alcohol is detected when the would-be driver blows into a tube.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Yraceburn pointed out that in the last two years, he has met with 54 families who lost loved ones to drunk drivers, and the victims often were passengers in cars driven by relatives or friends.

Yraceburn asked the teens to picture their best friend, someone they text all the time and whose photos are on their mobile phone.

"Now imagine having to explain to their mother, their father, their brothers and sisters, why you drove drunk and killed that person," he said.

The judge told the youngsters that he wanted to "get through that thick layer of invincibility."

Sometimes in court, the parent of a drunk driver will mouth the words "thank you" at him after he has handed down a harsh sentence, McNamara said.

"It's really weird to hear that from a parent. Thank you for hitting them hard because I've tried to explain it to them, and I'm not getting through to them," he said.

McNamara and the lawyers broke down the hard, cold facts.

The legal blood alcohol content limit for an adult driver is .08, or the equivalent of four beers in about an hour. Underage drivers may not have any alcohol in their system.

For a first offense, drivers in Kern County face 96 hours to six months in jail, $390 to $1,000 in fines, a 10-month license suspension, and sometimes safe driving classes and probation. Penalties are stiffer depending on the blood alcohol content, whether there were minors in the car and whether anyone was injured or killed.

A driver who kills someone faces a minimum of 15 years to life in prison.

Drivers who are age 17 or younger will lose their license for a year or until they turn 18, whichever is longer.

The students also heard from Carla Pearson, program coordinator and victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Her son "made a bad choice" by getting into a car with someone he probably knew had been using alcohol and drugs, she said, and it proved a fatal mistake.

"Almost everybody here has a phone," Pearson said. If you find yourself out with a driver who is impaired, "pick up that phone and call. I wish my son had done that. He would probably be here with us today."

Sponsored by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, the Leaders in Life youth conference draws about 1,800 middle and high school students every year.

The courtroom sessions hit home for students such as North High School's Louis Ozuna, 15, who said he learned a lot.

"It was my first time in court so I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "It was scary. That thing they put on your car so it won't start, I never even heard of that. I didn't know they had those things."

Thomas Jefferson Middle School student Henry Arinaga, 14, said the tough sentences surprised him.

"I'll definitely think twice when I get my license," he said. "I'll think to myself, 'What is going to happen if I do this?' "

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