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Everyone agreed Everardo Hernandez’s case was weak. When the San Jose, Calif., resident was picked up March 2 by the California Highway Patrol, he admitted to downing four beers, had an open bottle of Bud Light in his truck, and blew a .15 blood alcohol level, nearly twice the legal limit. But Hernandez took his case to trial anyway — in front of 200 high school students in the gym at San Jose’s Yerba Buena High School. Santa Clara County’s Traffic Safe Communities Network staff, who came up with the idea, said holding a real trial in front of students is a great way to steer students away from drinking and driving. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds, with alcohol being the primary factor in most crashes. The Santa Clara Superior Court bench, the district attorney and public defender signed onto the idea, but with the proviso that the only appropriate cases are ones where there’s not a lot to litigate. “If there was a case, we wouldn’t be here,” said Deputy Public Defender James Gleason, who supervises the public defender’s misdemeanor team and observed Hernandez’s trial. Hernandez’s case was the third to go to trial in front of a Santa Clara County high school audience under the novel program. The public defender’s office recruits the defendants, explaining to them that they’ll likely get a lesser sentence in return. Program supporters hope to try a DUI case once a year in every Santa Clara high school. Judge Randolf Rice, seated behind a folding table skirted with a paper tablecloth, called court to order in the school’s theater. This is Rice’s second trial for the program. During a break in the trial, Rice explained that he’s a father of two teen-agers and volunteered for the program. With a brown paper bag at his feet, Deputy District Attorney Michael Fletcher laid out his case, then, in a dramatic finish, pulled a case of beer from the bag and lined the cans up before the mock student jury (the defendants have to waive a real jury). “Today is a day for justice and a day for Mr. Hernandez to be held accountable,” said Fletcher, who weeks earlier was handling homicides but has now moved to the community prosecution unit that covers Yerba Buena. Deputy Public Defender Alfonso Lopez argued that his client, a native-Spanish speaker, may not have understood the arresting officer’s instructions. He argued Hernandez was stopped for a burnt-out headlight, not poor driving. He also called into question the accuracy of breath tests in nauseating detail, asking repeated questions about burping, regurgitating food and their effects on the test. The student audience, made up almost entirely of Hispanic and Asian-American students, watched the defendant follow the trial with the help of a Spanish interpreter. An hour into the trial, interest was waning. Students were whispering. A bag of M&Ms passed hands. The audience perked up for Lopez’s cross-ex of the CHP officer, but there was no startling revelation. Students slumped back into their chairs. Four hours later, the prosecution rested. Rice found Hernandez guilty of one count of driving while intoxicated with a blood alcohol level above .08, but dismissed a second count of driving under the influence. The judge sentenced him to a $1,251 fine and six days in the county’s weekend work program and restricted his license. Because Hernandez agreed to participate in the high school program, Rice then cut the fine by a third and gave him one day of credit. After 15 minutes of deliberations, the mock student jury found Hernandez guilty on both counts. (Though all three defendants have been convicted, the student jury in one case voted for acquittal.) Afterward, Rice and the lawyers agreed to take questions from the audience. One student asked if most trials take this long. Others seemed pretty interested in the math — one 12-ounce beer raises a man’s blood-alcohol level by .02 but burns off in an hour. A few days after the trial, Fletcher said he hesitated when first asked to prosecute the case for fear of trivializing the process. “I just remember going to high school assemblies and going to have a good time. The sober legal process was going to look like entertainment and we were going to send the completely wrong message,” Fletcher said. “I don’t think that’s happened.”

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