The Issaquah High School student clocked doing 102 mph on Interstate 90 in December told the state trooper who pulled him over that he was trying to reach a friend stranded at Snoqualmie Pass.
Rather than pay a hefty fine and get the speeding citation on his driver’s record, the student elected to have his case heard in Issaquah Student Traffic Court in March. A jury of his peers – fellow high-school students – sentenced him to 36 hours of community service to be performed at a local nonprofit.
If he completes it, the case will be dismissed. The speeding ticket won’t go on his driving record and so likely won’t be reported to his insurance company. And he won’t have to pay a fine.
That alarmed some Issaquah parents when they learned of the case this spring.
“It’s not even a slap on the wrist,” said Lori Runje, a parent with a sophomore at Issaquah High School. “I was horrified.”
Guidelines for the student traffic court at Issaquah High School say the program is for “minor” traffic infractions including speeding. But an examination of cases heard over the past several years at the Issaquah School District’s three high schools shows that the speeding case isn’t an anomaly, or even the most serious one to be handled in youth court.
The previous year, another Issaquah High School student was ticketed going 61 mph over the speed limit. And just last month, a student stopped for speeding lacked not only a driver’s license or a learner’s permit, but hadn’t even taken driver’s education.
Both cases were diverted to Issaquah Student Traffic Court.
Issaquah is one of several youth traffic courts in the county run in partnership with high schools, local district and municipal courts. The judges who oversee the student courts say the forum acknowledges that young drivers make mistakes and gives them a chance to correct their behavior. And, they say, having to acknowledge the wrongdoing to fellow students may make more of an impression than a brief court appearance – or mailing in a check to pay a fine.
“I understand people who say this is not the proper forum for some of these cases,” said Bothell Municipal Court Judge Michelle Gehlsen, who helped start the Bothell Youth Traffic Court in 2013.
But, she asked, “What has the most impact? Me, an adult who they don’t really listen to lecturing them, or other students asking them if they understand the harm they could have caused? It’s so much more educational than standing before a judge for two to three minutes.”
The state legislation that created student courts doesn’t limit the types of cases that can be heard as long as they are traffic infractions, not criminal matters. Reckless driving and DUI, for example, are criminal and excluded from youth traffic court. So is first-degree negligent driving, in which a driver endangers others and has been drinking or using drugs. But second-degree negligent driving is a traffic infraction, not criminal.
Some student courts, including Bothell and Shoreline/Lake Forest Park, allow excessive speeding and accident cases as long as they are civil infractions, because of what the judges say is the educational value to students appearing before their peers.
Issaquah doesn’t allow negligent driving or accidents, even those that are noncriminal, but they do accept excessive-speeding cases.
Some other student courts decline to hear cases they consider inappropriate, even if they’re noncriminal.
“We don’t want serious cases,” said Seattle Municipal Court Judge Karen Donohue, co-founder of the Seattle Youth Traffic Court. “We consider infractions that offer teachable moments. We do not refer serious infractions such as excessive speeding or accidents involving injuries to our Youth Traffic Court.”
The citation issued to a young person is determined by the law-enforcement officer making the stop.
A Washington State Patrol spokesman said excessive speed alone isn’t necessarily negligent driving.
“There have to be other factors – unsafe lane changes, disregarding the safety of others, whether anyone else is around. It’s up to the experience and judgment of the officer,” said Trooper Rick Johnson.
That troubles King County District Court Judge Peter Nault, who presides at the Issaquah District courthouse. Nault said he thinks anyone, youth or adult, going more than 30 mph over the legal limit should be presumed to be driving negligently.
“When I see an excess of 30 miles per hour on I-5 or I-90, that’s dangerous. That’s not just endangering others, that’s endangering themselves. Sixty miles an hour over the limit? Ay ay ay!”
But Nault said if the police officer doesn’t cite a student with negligent driving, the student is eligible for student-traffic court.
The number of cases involving an Issaquah School District student speeding 30 mph or more over the legal limit has spiked in the past two years, according to King County District Court records. Just one case was heard from 2009 to 2014, but 10 have been heard in student court since 2015.
After The Seattle Times raised questions about some of the more serious cases sent to Issaquah Student Traffic Court, Nault said he reviewed with court clerks the procedure for referring cases.
He said students must apply to have their infractions heard in youth court. But he said the court was accepting students in some instances before the traffic infraction had been filed. That meant the court wasn’t aware of some of the more egregious incidents.
Now, Nault said, no case will be referred until the citation has been reviewed.
“We have changed our method. Some were slipping through the cracks,” he said.
Municipal Court Judge Linda Portnoy, who oversees the Shoreline/Lake Forest Park Student Traffic Court, said judges can use their administrative authority to set parameters for which cases will be heard.
“A judge can make a policy to exclude excessive speeding,” she said.
Students who have served as judge or jurors in Issaquah Student Traffic Court acknowledge that some cases may seem too serious for teenagers to handle. But they say the participants, including most of the defendants, take the proceedings seriously.
Bailey Fuehr, who just graduated from Issaquah High School, served as a juror for Youth Traffic Court the past school year. She said, “Almost all of them (defendants) dress up for court. They act in a respectful manner. They admit in front of their classmates that they did something wrong. They take their punishment in a humble way.” The whole point, she said, is to give students another chance.
Sean Davidson, another recent graduate, served as judge for Issaquah Student Traffic Court this past year.
He said the teen cited for having no license and no learner’s permit was sentenced to 50 community-service hours.
“We weren’t lenient. You should get a license before driving,” Davidson said. He thinks student traffic court is a valuable experience, for both the students serving as judge and jury who learn about the law through real-life cases and for the defendants who appear before them.
“We’re dealing with 16-to-18 year olds. They’re not fully formed adults yet. They’re performing community service. They’re punished, but in a way that’s good for the community,” he said.
While Issaquah Student Traffic Court only metes out community-service hours, other youth traffic courts sometimes impose alternate punishment for traffic infractions. In Bothell, for example, Judge Gehlsen said one student who sped through a school zone was required to be the crossing guard for a day.
In the Seattle Youth Traffic Court, a student who drove around a school bus with flashing red lights and an extended stop sign was required to interview a bus driver about his experiences with unsafe drivers.
According to the Issaquah High School handbook for student traffic court, the intent is to “allow students who have been cited for minor traffic infractions, (speeding etc.) to take responsibility for those violations, while keeping their relatively new driving records clean.”
Some Issaquah residents remain skeptical. After she learned about the boy driving 102 mph on Interstate 90, Lori Runje posted the incident on Facebook where other parents and community members weighed in.
She doesn’t think any speeding ticket above 20 mph over the limit should be heard in student traffic court.
“The only thing that works is tough love, punishment,” she said.
Another Issaquah resident, Lori Culwell, said she thought student traffic court should be reserved for truly minor offenses, like failure to signal a turn.
“If that kid does 102 again and someone gets killed, isn’t that a liability problem for the school district? They should change the policy,” Culwell said.