'Courtroom to the Classroom' brings legal system to J.J. Kelly

Stephen Igo • Apr 15, 2007 at 12:12 PM

WISE - Justice tempered with mercy was among the lessons learned by high school seniors and juniors at J.J. Kelly High School in Wise on Friday.

The spring version of "Courtroom to the Classroom" brought several classes from different high schools to the J.J. Kelly auditorium for a genuine session of Wise County General District Court presided over by Judge Chadwick S. Dotson.

It was Dotson who launched the program last fall in his former capacity as Wise County commonwealth's attorney. The Virginia General Assembly appointed Dotson as general district court judge several weeks ago. His former chief deputy commonwealth's attorney, Ron Elkins, now serves as commonwealth's attorney.

Last fall's inaugural "Courtroom to the Classroom" was a hit with teachers and students, and Elkins said the intent is to keep the program going because of the real-life lessons teens can get by observing a court in action.

"We got a good response that first time from the school system and the students, and I thought it went well," Elkins said.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and the county's judicial system scheduled alcohol- and drug-related cases for Friday's session at J.J. Kelly.

"The kids coming to observe court today just finished with spring break, and they've got prom and graduation coming up," Elkins said. "This is a good time to bring home the point that drinking, period, when underage is against the law. Hopefully, what they will learn here today will deter them from partaking of alcohol, especially when driving."

Practically all of the approximately 125 juniors and seniors in attendance raised their hands when asked, prior to the formal opening of Friday's court session, how many have a driver's license. Elkins, Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Adrian Collins and Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Suzanne Kearney-Quillen provided the youthful court "gallery" stark and sobering statistics and a rundown of legal procedures that will apply should any of them run afoul of the law.

Elkins said approximately every 33 minutes someone in America dies in an alcohol-related traffic crash, and every two minutes someone is injured. During a typical weekend in America, he said one teenager dies each hour in a car crash. Nearly half of those accidents involve alcohol consumption. Of the total 947 traffic fatalities in Virginia last year, Elkins said 347 involved alcohol.

Most cases heard by Dotson at the high school on Friday involved the use and/or possession of alcohol by people under 21 or the use and/or possession of drugs. Besides observing courtroom procedures, students witnessed how a judge adjudicates each case based on the circumstances and conduct at the time of their arrest of each of the defendants.

One man in his mid-20s - the oldest defendant on trial - got a six-month suspended sentence, 12 months probation, a $500 fine, and his driver's license suspended for one year. But things could have been much worse, as the judge took into account the defendant's cooperative and mannerly conduct at the time he was placed into custody by a deputy on a first driving under the influence (DUI) offense.

Underage possession of alcohol and/or drug offenders - most not long out of high school themselves - received first offender status. Instead of jail terms and fines, Virginia's first offender program for certain misdemeanors basically gives young adults a second chance. If they keep to the straight and narrow during the next 12 months and fulfill other obligations handed down by Dotson - including community service - their records will be wiped clean.

Dotson was concise in his directions to each of these offenders that if any get hauled before his bench within the next year for any reason - even a speeding ticket - their deferred convictions would loom large. The judge advised the first offenders not to throw away the second chance at a clean slate that the law and the court were providing.

As classrooms go, few probably match the spellbound attention to reality court unfolding before students on Friday.

"We expect our students to see courts in action and to learn more about the actual process and functions of a court," said Gequetta Laney, senior government teacher at Coeburn High School. "When they read, that's great. But when you see things in action, that makes things easier to understand."

Kearney-Quillen made it easy to understand why running afoul of the law isn't a pleasant experience. Prior to the court session, she told students what to expect if stopped by a police officer and the legal procedures that fall into place thereafter if the officer issues a summons or places them under arrest.

Penalties can be dire, the deputy prosecutor told students, depending on what the officer discovers.

She first advised them to be polite to police officers because "if you give him a hard time" that's generally not a good start to an up-close and personal introduction to the justice system.

Even something as seemingly simple and trivial as a traffic violation, she said, can be more than a mere annoyance and inconvenience.

"If you attempt to get there faster, or get home before curfew," she said, the result could be "10 to 12 hours of your time" and roughly $200 in potential fines and court costs.

Andy Buchanan, a senior at Coeburn High School, said most of his classmates expressed interest in how court proceedings are conducted and how each case is prosecuted and adjudicated.

"Most (classmates) don't know what to expect or know what will happen," he said. "But I think our teachers and our parents prepared us pretty well about what to expect today."

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