County police Officer Michael Ziegler swapped a felony rape charge, with a maximum 20 years prison, for a piddling misconduct-in-office misdemeanor conviction.

Ziegler, now an ex-officer, didn't have Lady Luck smile on him Monday; she positively roared with laughter.

And the woman he was accused of raping? She sat in the Annapolis courtroom in shock, listening as terms of the plea bargain the prosecution and Ziegler's lawyer worked out were made public.

He would plead guilty on a reduced charge, quit the force and undergo a year ofsupervised probation and four additional probationary years. She wouldn't have to testify. Case closed.

Her tears were not the productof Lady Luck's charm, but of frustration and anger.

Ziegler, after all, had been indicted on a rape charge. The grand jury found sufficient evidence to charge that he pulled over the Crofton woman for drunken driving, told her to get in his cruiser so he could drive her home and instead drove her to a church parking lot and raped her. She claims he wanted to exchange sex and her silence for looking the other way on the DWI.

This wasn't the first time Ziegler had been caught with his pants down.

In 1979, he was accused of raping a woman while he was on duty. The woman in that case claims he threatened he would bust her for drugs and prostitutionif she didn't acquiesce. Butshe also turned him in, and he was suspended without pay for 30 days, the maximum penalty allowed short of dismissal.

In 1984, he was suspended three days for misconduct in not filing a report from a Laurel woman who claimed she had beenraped by another man. In that case, department records show he sat next to her on a couch, pulled her close and asked her for a date.

In each case, the woman was in a difficult situation. In each case, Michael Ziegler, a strapping man whocarried a gun and wore a uniform, did the wrong thing.

This time,Ziegler had to quit the force and stands convicted of the misdemeanor. He won't go to jail. He doesn't have to pay a fine. He won't face an internal police investigation. And it's conceivable he'd be able to strap on the gun and badge and patrol the streets again elsewhere.

At Monday's courthouse swap shop, there were whispers that the "victim" was not very credible, that the defense would make her look like a tramp, that her previoustroubles with the law would somehow make her less a victim.

So Ziegler's lawyer and the state's attorney's office cut a deal. Ziegler walked. That's how the legal system works.

Justice, in this case, was as blind, deaf and dumb as a box of rocks.

The victim will have to file a civil suit if she wants her story heard.

But what now?

What does it say about a police department that allowed an officer back on the streets after an incident that brought him within a hair of dismissal? And then put him back in acruiser in 1984 after he messed up again?

I would think that there areplaces to put an officer like that, the equivalent of the Army'speeling potatoes detail. Some newspapers, for example, have a shift called "overnight cops," where wayward individuals gain intimate knowledge of the workings of the cleaning crew and any stiffs the police find.

Since when is trying for sex onthe job considered a perk? I can see the police recruiting poster now: "To Protect. To Serve. To Have a Good Time, call 911."

It seems to me Ziegler got more than his share of second chances.As a matter of fact, I find it kind of ironic that police officers, who are always claiming the crooks get awaywith tons of bad stuff, are strangely silent when someone like Ziegler doesn't toe the line.

But beyond all the high-falutin' moralistic stuff, there remains a gnawing, creepy question.

If you're a woman on the road late at night and the blue lights suddenly flash in your rear-view mirror, what do you do?

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