New Hampshire's highest court went to a high school to hear arguments in a case it thought would resonate with the more than 500 students in the audience: Whether reading a text message while driving can amount to recklessness worthy of a prison sentence.
The dozens of students who lined up at two microphones to question the lawyers after Thursday's arguments suggested they'd picked a winner.
"The students feel invested in the cellphone case," said Brenda Barth, a history teacher at Bow High School who accompanied 70 students to the court's "On the Road" session at Concord High School. "It's not just about cellphones. It's about driving while distracted."
Chad Belleville, 30, is serving a 3 1/2- to 7-year sentence for vehicular assault and second-degree assault. He told police he was reading a text message while driving to pick up Chinese food in December 2010 and did not realize his car had veered across two lanes and into oncoming traffic. He struck a couple's car, causing traumatic brain injury to their teenage son.
Sending a text message while driving has been against the law in New Hampshire since January 2010. It is a motor vehicle violation punishable by a $100 fine.
Reading a text while driving is not explicitly against the law in the state.
"In a case like this, where he doesn't actually send a text, there seems to be no concrete barrier on how long it takes for you to look at a phone before it's illegal and endangers someone," said Austin Mahew, a junior at Concord High School. "One second's a lot different than 10 seconds."
Belleville's lawyer argued Thursday that taking his eyes off the road for the time it took to read the message did not rise to the level of felony recklessness. A prosecutor countered that he was so engrossed in reading the text that he failed to see three cars coming at him.
The Supreme Court held the first of its "On the Road" series at St. Anselm College in 2002. It has since held court at a total of four colleges and 11 high schools, including Thursday's session in Concord, attended by students from about a half dozen schools. Barth said the series enables teachers to brief students on the issues and law behind the cases they will hear so they can be more engaged in the legal specific arguments and the legal system in general.
The students also heard arguments in a second case on whether a trial judge erred by letting a prosecutor refer to a "billy club" a person charged with assault had once owned.
After both cases, the five justices came back to the stage in office attire and spoke with students about their careers and answered questions that did not relate to cases before the court. Students asked about whether they've encountered cases that conflict with their ideals, how they prepare for oral arguments and how justices are chosen, among other topics.
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