Sobering view of driving drunk

High schoolers see the consequences firsthand in District Court session

November 12, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,Special to The Sun

Like many teenagers, Sonya Peterson knew about courtrooms mostly from TV shows such as Judge Judy and prime-time dramas.

Sitting in the gallery of District Court last week as part of the Schools in the Courts program, the Broadneck High School freshman was surprised by what she heard -- and what she didn't hear. There was no shouting. No name-calling. No confrontations.

But that didn't mean the 100 students from four county high schools weren't exposed to emotion. They observed at least three hearings, with details of drunken car chases and a father who was trying to drink away his woes.

"I know not to do a lot of things now," she said. "To be careful."

The Schools in the Courts program was started in 2001 by District Judge Vincent A. Mulieri in hopes of educating teenagers about the risks and consequences of drunken driving. It includes talks by police officers, lawyers and people who speak about their experiences with drunken driving.

Mulieri chooses the cases the students observe, based on their connection to drugs and alcohol, said Rita Buettner, the public affairs manager for the court.

The program is offered twice a year. Last week, students from Broadneck, Arundel and North County high schools attended.

Tara Reilly, a senior at Arundel High School, said she was moved by the case of a 21-year-old defendant who seemed to be on a downward spiral of drunken-driving arrests. As he was being led away in handcuffs, he mouthed "I love you" to his mother, Tara said.

Broadneck teacher Liz Krissoff said she likes to take ninth-graders to the program so that they can learn about the dangers of drunken driving before they become drivers themselves.

One case involved a 21-year-old who had been stopped for erratic driving, then sped away, leading to a lengthy and dangerous chase that included crossing a concrete barrier. He eventually lost control of the car and crashed. Police found a crack pipe in the car.

Trying to change

Darren Douglas, the public defender, noted that the defendant had been accepted into a treatment program. "This is a young person trying to change some things," he said. But he already had a lengthy record.

"Sir, you're only 21," said Mulieri. If you don't change, "your life is going to be this way - in jail and out - until you do something that is going to get you a big, long sentence."

Because he had been held for 77 days, the next step was a treatment program and probation.

"You've got to abstain from alcohol and drugs," Mulieri said.

Another case involved a divorced father with a drinking problem. The officer who stopped him for driving erratically asked him whether he had been drinking. "Apparently not enough," he replied, according to the prosecutor.

Speaking to the judge, the defendant said alcoholism runs in his family, that he suffers from bipolar disorder and depression, and that his 10-year-old daughter had been raped. He said he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but needed more help.

"I know you've got a lot of problems," said Mulieri. He warned that driving while drunk could kill somebody and destroy a family, and added, "You've got to turn this thing around."

After the cases were heard, Leslie Thomas of Mothers Against Drunk Driving stood in front of the students and told of losing a brother to a drunken driver.

"On a beautiful Sunday, May 11, which was Mother's Day, my brother was killed because he got in a car as a sober person with a driver who was drunk," she said.

He was 19 and a midshipman at the Naval Academy, she said. "My dad has five daughters. There is no son."

She said something as simple as a song or a plane flying overhead can bring back all the pain of the loss.

"I urge you, don't do this to somebody, because those somebodies have a name," she said.

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