The prosecution says exigent circumstances in the drug bust justified a warrantless search. The presence of nearby children in possible danger and a forecast of rain that could dissolve drug evidence tossed outdoors created a situation that necessitated quick action by the police. The defense team, however, says, ‘What emergency?’ The kids were in no real danger and the forecast of rain was for hours later; the police had plenty of time, they counter, to come up with a warrant.
Both sides of this hypothetical courtroom case were argued on different occasions by New Paltz High School’s Mock Trial Team during the months of competition that led up to their recent countywide victory in this year’s Mock Trial Tournament for high school students. Teams throughout the state all work on the same specific case assigned at the beginning of the school year by the New York State Bar Association, which sponsors the series of competitions. After receiving a thick binder containing material facts and evidence in the case, the teams spend months determining appropriate arguments for both prosecution and defense, rehearsing witnesses, citing case law and writing opening and closing statements.
Local competition begins in February, culminating in the countywide tournament held this year on April 6 at the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston with Judge Donald Williams presiding, himself a former Ulster County district attorney. The New Paltz team edged out the team from Kingston High School to come out on top, winning a spot in the regional competition last Saturday, April 30, where they placed third.
“I’m still very proud of them,” says their advisor, social studies teacher Albert Cook. Under his leadership, the New Paltz Mock Trial Team has won the Ulster County championship an impressive seven times: in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2015 and now, 2016. Once a pre-law/history major who considered going into law, Cook says it was a minor in education that revealed where his true passion lay. Still, he says, advising the club “scratches the itch.” New Paltz attorney Jon Simonson of Blatchly & Simonson serves as legal consultant to the team.
The Mock Trial Team is 16 students strong, represented by all grades at New Paltz High School, but “junior heavy” this year, says Cook. The students meet as often as three times a week during the school year to prepare and even more than that if warranted, according to team member Evan Purcell, a senior. “You have these deadlines and you just have to get it done,” he says.
Purcell plans to go into computer engineering as a career — not the law — but has found that participating in Mock Trial has numerous benefits. “You don’t just learn about the law; you learn about public speaking, teamwork and being dedicated to something that takes a lot of commitment,” he says. “I think these are things that help you no matter what you do. You get a lot of experience at memorization and lose the fear of speaking in front of a courtroom of people, and you really learn how to think on your feet. When you go into a courtroom, you have a guideline, but nothing is rigid because you don’t know how a judge will rule on a certain idea. You have to be prepared.”
Darren Tsai, a senior, is captain of the Mock Trial Team. He plans to major in computer science. “Joining this group appealed to me because it was a chance to be challenged intellectually,” he says. “I think we learn a lot of skills that carry over into other things. The ability to think on your feet and really adapt to change is definitely something that’s important, whether it’s in a courtroom or a boardroom.” When asked if there was anything he learned through Mock Trial that surprised him, Tsai says he thinks it gave him a much deeper understanding of the complexities involved in the legal process. “I think the law is much more nuanced than I thought it was before.”
The group continues to work on their case (from both sides) all the way up to competition time. “It’s really challenging, but even though we’ve worked on it all year, we try to go back and stare at it a little bit more, and try to figure out if there’s a way we can do it better,” says Tsai.
Cook says that some of his former Mock Trial students went on to graduate from heavyweight law schools that include Stanford, Georgetown and NYU, while others who found they enjoyed the dramatic part of courtroom cases went into acting. “The club teaches them thinking skills,” he adds. “It’s also unusual to have the opportunity to be involved so directly with professionals. And I think they enjoy being part of a successful team.”