Jury of their Peers
Taking the Stand to Change Teen Driver Behavior
Sixteen year old Sarah received her first ticket for speeding. As a result, she had to appear in court. Luckily, in Seattle, teens like Sarah have a rare opportunity to learn from this type of experience. Being tried by a jury of their peers.
Teen drivers are still learning, and often mistakes on the roadway happen. These mistakes can result in traffic violations or worse, fatalities.
At any age, getting pulled over by an officer can be a scary experience. But, even scarier for a teen, is navigating the legal system.
The Seattle Youth Traffic Court (SYTC) provides an alternative for teens. They can appear before a group of their peers, who serve as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court staff, and jurors. The court meets once a month and usually hears approximately eight cases.
National studies show teens sentenced in youth courts are less than half as likely to make the same driving mistake in the future. There are 1,600 youth courts in the U.S. and approximately 20 in Washington State.
SYTC, funded in part by State Farm, is based on the concept of restoring justice. As part of their youth court sentence, the teen defendants may have to:
complete community service hours,
interview a police officer,
write an essay, or
write a letter of apology to the other motorist(s) involved in a fender bender.
All teen drivers who take part in this program must act as a juror at least once.
“There are so many benefits to youth courts - the public is safer by having more awareness of the dangers of inattentive or problem driving behaviors,” shared Margaret Fisher, one of the founders of SYTC from the Seattle University School of Law. “They have a chance to give back to the community for the harm they caused. They become better drivers themselves as they learn from the mistakes made by their peers.”
What about Sarah the speeder?
In February 2017, she took the stand, under oath, and shared her story. She underwent a cross examination as the peer jury listened intently. They asked questions about her grades, after-school activities, and questions about the speeding incident.
The prosecutor called an expert witness, Sgt. Ashley Price. She spoke about these types of infractions and ways to avoid them. Price is one of two officers assigned by the Seattle PD to serve as youth court expert witnesses.
Sgt. Price shared a story of a fatality crash she saw where speed was at fault. The assigned officers’ role is to offer a depth of impact and consequences of risky driving behaviors. Price concluded, "In their first year on the road, teens are almost 10 times more likely to be in a crash, so be safe out there."
Then the defense attorney questioned Sarah, "Who pays your insurance? Were there consequences at home?"
"My parents pay my monthly insurance bill and car payment," Sarah said. After a brief pause she continued, "My parents yelled a little bit. That was then followed by a sentence of a month of washing the dinner dishes, and being grounded from use of my car. I never want to get a ticket again."
In Sarah’s closing statement she explained she thinks she learned the behavior from her father. "Mom is always saying my dad has a lead foot, and he needs to not be in such a hurry everywhere," said the teen. "I asked my dad for tips how I can drive safer, so we both can be better drivers."
Did you know teens who say their parents set rules and pay attention to their activities in a helpful, supportive way are half as likely to be in a crash.
It was time for the jury to deliberate. After ten minutes, the jury had come to a consensus. The sentence:
four hours community service,
a one page single-spaced essay on the dangers of speeding, and
participation in two future youth court juries.
"The students gain an unparalleled education and understanding of the legal system. They develop critical thinking, observation, and questioning skills in a meaningful way,” says Terri Cooper, Commissioner Cheney Municipal Court “These are real cases that effect real people their own age. More communities in Washington need Teen Traffic Courts.”
For their participation in youth court, Sarah completed her sentence and now has a clean driving record. The high school volunteers who heard her case received community service credits toward their graduation and are better drivers for their experience!