She cannot fathom why so many people - more than 4,100 arrested in her community last year - turn the ignition after having a few drinks. More troublesome, she said, is that one-third have been caught before.

Rice, however, can do something about it: As Nassau County district attorney, she has launched an aggressive assault on drunken driving in one of the nation's busiest traffic corridors.

She does not allow plea deals in DWI cases. She put a man on trial for murder in a horrific drunken-driving crash. And she plans to slap alcohol-sensors on the ankles of admitted alcoholics.

The moves have drawn jeers from defense attorneys who believe her approach leaves little leeway for judicial discretion. But Rice doesn't care.

"Look, if I'm a one-term DA, then I'm a one-term DA, but I am going to do everything that I can to make the changes in this county," Rice said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Rice's office is currently prosecuting a 25-year-old insurance salesman on murder charges - a rarity in drunken-driving cases - following an accident that killed a 7-year-old flower girl and the chauffeur who was driving her family home from a wedding.

Plea deals in DWI cases are no longer acceptable, she said, and this summer her office obtained a warrant for a blood sample from police inspector who was later charged with drinking and driving after crashing his unmarked police cruiser into a utility pole while off duty.

She said while getting blood samples is standard practice in other jurisdictions, it is something new in Nassau County. She also intends to use a $110,000 state grant to purchase high-tech alcohol-detecting ankle bracelets for DWI offenders who, as part of their probation, are required to stay sober.

Rice keeps her emotions barely beneath the surface when she talks specifically about the family of Kate Flynn, the little flower girl who was decapitated as she slept in the back seat of a limousine that crashed head-on into a pickup truck. The driver of the pickup was allegedly three times over the legal limit and was going the wrong way on a highway when the crash occurred.

"The pain that that family is going through, they will never be the same," said Rice. "They talk to you about how now they put three kids to bed, but they say goodnight to four. I mean it just breaks your heart."

When she ran against 31-year incumbent District Attorney Denis Dillon last year, Rice hammered away at what she said was her opponent's propensity for allowing defendants to plea bargain. Once in office, she discovered that more than one-third of all the pending DWI cases involved repeat offenders.

"I almost fell to the floor when I saw that," the former federal prosecutor said. "It was clear to me that there was no deterrent message. The message was you can do this as many times as you want and you're always going to be given the option to plead out to the equivalent of a traffic infraction."

"When you have someone who gets caught one time and they learn their lesson and they never come back, well that's good for them and good for us. But that's not what's happening."

"She's absolutely correct that there's an epidemic of drunk driving on Long Island," said Cohen, whose 21-year-old daughter Jodi was killed in a DWI-related accident in 1989. "There's not a day that you can open the paper and not read about another DWI crash. I am so proud of the way she is handling the situation."

Defense attorney Thomas Liotti held a news conference in August claiming Rice's refusal to yield on plea bargains is too stringent. "She's basically looking at this as a black-and-white issue," he said. "People need some degree of hope, and under Kathleen Rice's policies, they're not getting it."

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