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Drunk Driver Marissa Rodriguez Got Off Way Too Easy.

WHEN DEPARTMENT OF Public Safety officer Juan Cruz died the night of December 8, 1998, he was doing his job, protecting the public. He was working a crappy late-night shift on a dangerous stretch of I-10 north of downtown Tucson, when the parked patrol car in which he was sitting was rammed from behind by a car coming at a high rate of speed. It's not fair to say it was being driven because that would give the person sitting behind the wheel too much credit. And Marissa Rodriguez doesn't deserve any credit; she's already caught the break of a lifetime courtesy of a system of justice gone haywire.

It had been legal for Rodriguez to drink alcohol for only a few hours, but I'm guessing it wasn't her first time. Out "celebrating" her 21st birthday in a manner befitting the pathetic, she drank herself silly and then got in the car. She had consumed enough alcohol to push her blood-alcohol content up to a point roughly twice Arizona's legal limit of .10. (Most states have adopted a more responsible .08). She probably wouldn't have been able to stand up straight or walk very well, but she thought nothing of getting behind the wheel. Heck, she thought nothing, period.

Besides, God wouldn't take her on her birthday. No, God's a joker; He took somebody else, instead. She barreled down the highway, shit-faced and oblivious to her surroundings, until her car plowed into the back of Officer Cruz's vehicle. The collision may or may not have knocked Cruz unconscious; we can only pray that it did. What the collision did do is rupture the fuel tanks in the police car, set off a series of explosions, and quickly engulf the cruiser and its occupant in flames.

Still not done with the carnage, Rodriguez's car skidded sideways and struck DPS officer John Talatke, who suffered neck and shoulder injuries when he was thrown into the median. Talatke somehow managed to scramble to his feet and race back to the burning car, where he suffered burns on his hands trying to rescue the doomed Cruz.

Inside the flaming cruiser, Cruz was being burned alive. His skin would be crackling from the heat and any attempts to breathe would be stymied by the fact that voracious fire would be sucking the oxygen out of his lungs to help feed the inferno which was causing his painful, needless death.

For all we know, Marissa Rodriguez looked over and her few functioning brain cells formed the thought, "Ooo, pretty colors."

Juan Cruz had served the state of Arizona, and Marissa Rodriguez, for 18 years. He had five kids and was only a couple weeks away from getting married to a woman he'd been dating for a while. His car was off the road, his warning lights were on, and he was doing everything by the book when Marissa Rodriguez took his life.

All of this, however, apparently means nothing because some guy who works in a government building somewhere likes to look at pornography. I don't see the connection, either, but it's real clear to lawyers who, in this day and age, all view the world through kaleidoscope eyes.

Law and Justice used to be synonymous in the public mind and sometimes even in practice. At the most liberal interpretation, they were symbiotic, with one being used to arrive at the other. They used to be worshipped as twin pillars of a great civilization. But somewhere along the line -- I'm not really sure where -- they diverged. Nowadays, the former is but a tool to be manipulated and the latter is a fuzzy concept to be taught in schools and then largely ignored and snickered at by the practitioners of the former.

It seems that the only rule for lawyers is that you get to try to make up new rules as you go along. It wasn't her fault that she was drinking; the drinking made her drink. Society made her drink, her ancestry made her drink, TV commercials made her drink. And if that doesn't work, maybe the car malfunctioned or maybe the dead officer screwed up somehow.

And if that doesn't work, maybe some guy whose job it is to turn on a machine which determines blood-alcohol content likes to look at dirty pictures. Still don't see the connection? You're not squinting hard enough.

Marissa Rodriguez, not looking particularly remorseful nor worse for wear from the collision (in my brave new world, we won't allow the misuse of the word "accident"), accepted a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated assault. It should have been murder.

She got a relative slap on the wrist. Relatives and her lawyer spoke of how her life was ruined. They don't get it. She still has a life. She'll still be able to see the sunset, listen to the birds, and dream about that next drink. Even in the highly unlikely case that she has to spend the next 12 years in prison being mistreated by chain-gang women who are a whole lot less attractive than Pam Grier, she'll be only 34 when she gets out, with half a life pissed away but the other half still ahead of her.

I'm betting that Officer Cruz would trade her, head-up.

We've got to stop this. Do away with the diminished-capacity defense. How did we ever arrive at a place where a person can break the law by drinking too much and killing someone while behind the wheel, and then use that first crime to lessen the punishment for the second crime? It's insane, yet it's our system.

In every case, the drunk driver was sober when he/she started drinking that day or night. That is the point when the clock should start on the crime. It's all criminal behavior and one exacerbates the severity of the other.

Stop letting lawyers create new laws in a process akin to sewage flowing downhill, inexorably seeking tiny cracks and crevices into which it might flow. There isn't a human being alive who can see how the possession of pornography by one person can make things easier for another person who happens to be a killer.

Drunk driving used to be a wink-and-nod thing, wrong but not criminal. Things are changing and drunk-driving homicides are going down. But not fast enough nor far enough.

We should all be outraged by this. We should do whatever's necessary to see that the drinkers don't drive and the drivers don't drink. But we won't. Some will shrug, some will mourn, and some will go out and have a drink, knowing -- just knowing! -- that it will never happen to them.

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