In the race to get elected, Rice decided not to think about the groundbreaking aspects of her campaign. But the day after she won the local news stations asked her point blank how it felt to be the first female district attorney
“I had never experienced sexism in my family. My parents expected the four boys and six girls to go to college. We weren’t treated differently. I just forged ahead,” she says.
“To me getting promoted was merit based. I think I won that race based on merit. I’m very proud to be the first women and I take that role model aspect very seriously for young girls, but also for young boys to show that no matter what obstacles are put in your way you can overcome them though the strength of your character and hard work.”
The issue that has brought her to national prominence is her hard line stance on drunk drivers. Rice is clearly passionate about the issue and its often fatal consequences in her community.
“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.
“We do not plea-bargain those cases. Really, it’s setting the tone on cases that affect the quality of people’s lives. We take a hard line on them.”
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