If you've turned on your TV or radio this week, you've heard the question: How could a man with James Mosqueda's criminal record possibly have been approved to haul 8,600 gallons of explosive gasoline? There ought to be a law, some say, to ensure that never again will there be a gasoline-fueled fire that melts down part of a key San Francisco area overpass -- and, they suggest, this never would have happened if the "hazmat driver" did not have a criminal record.
In Mosqueda's case, he has a serious criminal history. The tanker truck driver was convicted of a number of crimes, including felony possession of stolen property in 1994 and felony heroin possession in 1996.
If you were to ask any reasonable person to describe the ideal person to transport gasoline in the wee hours of the morning, I suppose it would be a person with no criminal convictions, who has never imbibed alcohol, and who has crack reflexes, an aversion to speeding, a calm persona and a keen appreciation for driving freeways in the stillness of the night -- not someone with a serious prior drug conviction.
Now back to the real world.
The sort of person who is willing to haul a huge load of hazardous material down the highway in the middle of the night may not be astronaut material. (And after Lisa Nowak's diaper-run to Florida, it seems that not all astronauts are astronaut material.)
While Mosqueda's record would give anyone pause, the most salient information about his criminal history is that he has not been convicted of a crime in more than 10 years. He passed his driving tests. He worked in an industry that at times drug tests drivers. He received a Transportation Security Administration clearance that found he was not a threat to the United States and that he had a legal right to work in America.
The bottom line: America is the land of second chances. Yes, certain convictions should keep someone from working in a particular job: For example, you don't want sex offenders teaching elementary school. But outside those special circumstances, this country has an interest in seeing those who have served their time in prison participate in America's workforce -- where they can pay their taxes and play by the rules.
If state lawmakers decide to throw needless hurdles in ex-cons' rehabilitation, then every criminal sentence threatens to be a life sentence, and decades of playing it straight can count for nothing.
Margaret L. Richardson, director of the Clean Slate Practice in Berkeley, Calif., has been appalled at the fallout from this story. As she put it, "Once that debt has been paid, it shouldn't be used again and again to prohibit that person from moving forward" -- with a new job, a safe place to live or educational opportunities. Driving a truck affords men without a college education the opportunity to earn a living wage -- and it is not in California's interest to pass laws, as one assemblyman has hinted, to make it harder for adults with records to make a living.
If Mosqueda broke any laws, then authorities should throw the book at him. If he was speeding, as the California Highway Patrol suspects, there should be stiff legal consequences. But for once, let California have a disaster not followed by a stampede to pass laws that hurt the wrong people, because Sacramento cannot pass a law prohibiting steel from melting at 3,000 degrees.