On a Lodi high school campus on Monday, nearly 200 students watched as a man convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants was sentenced to serve time in jail, in a countywide effort to help students make better decisions about drinking and driving.
San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Vlavianos presided over the sentencing on the Jim Elliot Christian High School campus, where an auditorium was transformed into a courtroom. With the prosecution and defense attorney on-hand, students watched as defendant Paul Singh pleaded no contest to a DUI offense, before Vlavianos sentenced him to 35 days in jail and 5 years of probation.
This wasn’t a stunt.
Singh was led away by a police officer to serve time for a real crime in a real jail.
Following the sentencing, Vlavianos and others shared with students some real-life stories about the dangerous — and sometimes fatal — consequences of drinking and driving.
“We don’t want to talk down to them,” said Julia Scott, collaborative justice courts senior office coordinator, who helped organize Monday’s Choices and Consequences event, which educates students about the dangers of drinking and driving. “We’re just trying to give them the facts so they can make an informed decision on their own.”
Stating his desire for others to learn from his mistakes, Singh spoke of his regret and encouraged students to help others make the right decision, even taking their keys if necessary, before he was taken to begin his sentence.
Students sat in silence as a police officer handcuffed the defendant and led him away to serve his time.
The attorneys involved in the case were Chief Deputy Scott Fichtner of the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office and defense attorney Gil Somera.
Following the sentencing, Vlavianos turned to address the students about the problems associated with drinking and driving locally.
A video clip containing testimonies from friends and family members of Nicole Johnson, an Escalon High School junior who was killed by a drunk driver in 2004, was shown.
Johnson’s death was the birthing point for the Choices and Consequences program. More than a death a year occurred in Escalon due to drunk driving before community leaders implemented the program to educate students. Since then, drunk driving fatalities involving teens in the area have seen a drastic drop.
The students were also addressed by an inmate serving a life term at the Central California Woman’s Facility via video.
“If you don’t want to go to an event because there is no alcohol there, it is a problem. Get help. Get help,” the inmate told them. “I didn’t recognize that.”
San Joaquin County Superior Court has conducted Choices and Consequences since 2004, when Vlavianos sought out a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Vlavianos said defendants who participate in the program receive $500 in community service credit, which is put toward their crime, as well as credit for one day served in jail.
Vlavianos added that he and both attorneys agree to the terms of the punishment prior to the sentencing, which are held at schools throughout San Joaquin County 10 to 15 times per year.
“I know it has a lasting effect because I meet students who are talking about it years later,” Vlavianos said.
The last presentation came from 23-year-old Rosemary Lopez, a local resident and Lodi High graduate who was recently released after serving time for vehicular manslaughter.
“I thought drinking was fun. I didn’t realize how much I did it or what it was going to do. I was going to school, hoping to become a teacher, and I partied,” Lopez said.
“I never thought this would happen to me and I am here to tell you how terrible this feeling is to live with daily,” she said. “Not a day goes by that I do not think about what I’ve caused. If you are one of those people thinking that it’s never going to happen to (you), I’m here to tell you it can.”
Elliot students said a veil was listed from their eyes as they realized these tragedies can occur so close to home.
“I thought it was a really big eye-opener and it was really sad to see how many lives are affected,” student Kaylee Buhrkuhl said. “We always think of the victim and their family, but it also affects the lives of the guilty party and their family. I think we feel protected here, but seeing this happen locally reminds me that it can happen anywhere.”
News-Sentinel reporter Kristopher Anderson contributed to this report.