A D.A with a serious mission
Since her election in 2005, Nassau County’s first female district attorney Kathleen Rice has distinguished herself as a mold breaking public official for her get-tough decision to prosecute DWI cases. She talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY
“DWI offenses are an enormous problem on Long Island. It’s a problem that resonates with the public. Everyone here knows how bad it is. We’re a car driven society out here, very different from New York,” she says.
“Over 4,000 people a year are arrested here for drunk driving, and out of that number a third have been arrested before. My opinion is the message was not getting through. We had a too lax plea-bargaining system.”
Rice was incensed, and she decided to fix it.
“What I did was overhaul the plea-bargaining system for drunk drivers. We’re holding them accountable now,” Rice says.
“Most people were getting to plead guilty to the equivalent of a traffic infraction. It was like speeding. They paid a fine and went on their merry way. We are now holding people more accountable to that misdemeanor.
“We’ve also embarked on a broad educational program because in my view the way we tackle this problem once and for all is to raise the levels of awareness. It’s an issue across the whole country, not just here.”
The case that brought the nation’s media, including 60 Minutes, to her office door was the horrific death of 7-year-old Irish American Katie Flynn, which Rice flatly calls a murder. Flynn had been travelling inside a limousine that she, her sister, father and mother had also been riding in, when a pickup truck slammed into the car, also killing the limousine driver Stanley Rabinowitz. The family had been returning home from the wedding of Flynn’s aunt in Bayville.
Martin Heidgen, driving a 1999 Chevrolet pickup truck the wrong way in the southbound lanes of the Meadowbrook Parkway, crashed into the limousine at 2 a.m. Heidgen survived the crash with a fractured ankle. The police charged him with two counts of second-degree manslaughter and driving while intoxicated.
"There was no question that it was a murder case, based on the facts. But a DWI is a misdemeanor, by law. We can debate whether it should be a felony right off the bat, but right now it’s a misdemeanor,” Rice says.
Rice’s action on DWI cases has caught the attention of other district attorneys who have explored her get-tough stance on drinking and driving.
“I’m proud to say we have put Nassau County on the map in terms of how we are addressing this epidemic. It just shows this is not a local issue,” she says.
“Over 15,000 people every year die of alcohol related crashes. If there was any other causes of that many deaths every year we would all be up in arms. What I’m trying to do is raise awareness to get people to say enough is enough.”
Rice intends to run again in November for another four-year term.
“We’ve done an enormous amount already. On drunk driving, on plea-bargaining, on Internet crime, we have accomplished a great deal. We do sting operations on sexual predators, and we have a 100% percent conviction rate,” she says.
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