2014 Winner: Honorable Kathleen Rice

James J. Howard Highway Safety Trailblazer Award
Kathleen Rice

A law enforcement official and fearless innovator, the Honorable Kathleen Rice, District Attorney for Nassau County, New York, has used her position for the last eight-and-a-half years to advance highway safety at every level and through all the means at her disposal: spearheading prevention programs, legislation, training, and bold, high profile prosecutions that have received national attention.

First elected in 2005, the D.A. made highway safety a priority during her campaign, focusing on the need for improved traffic safety and the unacceptable devastation caused by DWIs. Her election made her the first female District Attorney on Long Island, and while she was not immediately welcomed with open arms by the Nassau County criminal justice establishment, the sincerity of her positions and her tenacious approach to highway safety has since earned their respect.

The D.A.’s efforts first received nationwide attention when she prosecuted a drunk driver for murder after he drove the wrong way on a major highway with a .28 blood alcohol concentration and collided head-on into a wedding limousine. The case received national media attention and opened a debate on whether DWI homicides could constitute murder.

D.A. Rice built on the attention the case received and partnered with members of the legislature to change numerous vehicular crimes statutes. She drafted the Aggravated Vehicular Homicide and Assault bills, which imposed greater sanctions in the case of certain impaired operator crashes. The D.A. was also instrumental in the passage of Leandra’s Law, which makes it a felony to drive while intoxicated or impaired with a child in the car and also requires mandatory ignition interlock devices to be installed in first-time DWI offender’s vehicles. She closed loopholes that allowed offenders to evade the interlock by transferring cars out of their names.

During her tenure, D.A. Rice created the first vehicular crimes’ bureau (VCB) in the county’s history, which is a model for a cooperative, interagency approach to vehicular crimes prosecution and deterrence. The District Attorney has staffed VCB with Assistant District Attorneys who have received specialized training in collision reconstruction, crash data retrieval, standardized field sobriety tests and drug recognition.

She worked tirelessly with the Nassau County Police Department to establish a truly collaborative approach to highway safety and vehicular crimes prosecution. When D.A. Rice took office in 2006, Nassau County was ranked 28th of 62 New York counties for top count DWI convictions. Even with plea programs that result in charge reductions for eligible offenders, Nassau County ranked 6th in 2012.

Education is an important facet of the D.A.’s safety programs. She developed a 90-minute, interactive high school prevention program called “Choices and Consequences” that has reached more than 50,000 high school students. In addition, the D.A. has targeted young people for plea programs in the areas of reckless driving, social host law enforcement, underage drinking and DWIs. A young offender will receive treatment and education, complete community service, attend a victim impact panel, and receive an interlock and transdermal alcohol monitoring before he or she can earn a reduction in the criminal charges against them. The goal is to address the underlying problems before saddling a young person with a criminal conviction.

D.A. Rice is also piloting a new program of early intervention and intensive supervision for DWI offenders. The program includes a step-down approach to monitoring, beginning with transdermal alcohol monitoring devices and transitioning to interlocks and then to personal breath testing devices. Treatment failures will result in adjustments to the intensity of the treatment provided, but willful failures such as refusing to participate in treatment or driving without a license or an interlock will result in a predetermined jail sentence.

D.A. Rice’s impact is being felt beyond Nassau County. The adjoining county, Suffolk, mirrored her policies, improving traffic safety throughout Long Island.

A pioneer who faced and overcame many challenges along the way, D.A. Rice has proven that she is not afraid to tackle the serious issue of impaired driving, and by doing so has made the roads safer for all.